Unification of Science and Spirit -- Copyright Ben Goertzel © 1996
The Perennial Theory of Mind
The Perennial Theory of Mind
Mind is at the center of the universal hierarchy as I have defined it here, with Quanta, World and Body below, and Intuition, Bliss and Being above.
Mind is also the central locus of the unification of science and spirit. Science deals with the lower realms of the hierarchy: the physical world, the sub-physical world and the body. It deals with mind as mind manifests itself in the world (through psychological experiments) and in the body (through neuroscience). Spiritual traditions, on the other hand, deal with the mind as it relates to altered states of consciousness, to interaction with the divine. They view the mind as a vessel for higher inspirations, and as an obstacle to enlightenment. The key to linking science and spirituality is in the way one understands the mind. One needs a flexible but substantive model of mind, one that is serviceable for both scientific and spiritual purposes.
The goal of my research work over the past years has been precisely to provide such a model of mind. In Chapter 6 I will describe this model in detail, and outline its relevance to spiritual experience. In this chapter, however, I will ignore modern innovations and present an extensive review of the ancient, spiritual view of mind -- a view of mind from which, as we shall see, modern science has a great deal to learn.
The Perennial Philosophy, as reviewed above, is a general view of the universe, derived by abstracting the common element from a huge variety of wisdom traditions, distributed over space and time. The question I wish to ask now is: What does the Perennial Philosophy say about the mind?
In a sense, of course, the Perennial Philosophy as a whole is a theory of mind. Part of the Perennial Philosophy is the equation of Mind with Universe -- the Zen Buddhist literature, for example, speaks frequently of the One Mind. But I am considering "mind" in the narrower sense here, as the "thinking, remembering, reasoning mind," as one among many levels in the hierarchy of being.
In order to get at the Perennial Theory of Mind, I will proceed through a number of wisdom traditions and discuss the understandings of mind contained therein. For sake of convenience and consistency, I will focus on classical Oriental traditions, especially Indian ones: Vedanta, Yoga, Buddhism and Zen. In ancient India, more than anywhere else, psychology,philosophy and spiritual practice were synthesized into a unified whole.
It is educational and enlightening to study the particular psychological theories of various traditions. However, the reader should be very clear on what the goal is here. I will not try to give a thorough summary of the view of mind embodied in any one wisdom tradition, but will rather attempt to extract the general view of the mind that is intrinsic in the Perennial Philosophy itself, apart from particular cultural manifestations.
Without anticipating all my conclusions, let me say now what I believe to be the two central points about mind common to all, or nearly all, wisdom traditions. The first is that thoughts and emotions somehow persist of their own momentum, and block the mind from intuitively recognizing its own true nature, which is unity with the universe and the divine. And the second is that attention, consciousness, plays a key role in freeing the mind from these thought-feeling complexes.
Spiritual practices and philosophies differ greatly from one tradition to another. But every wisdom tradition says, in one way or another, something about the stifling role of thoughts and feelings, and the curative, transformative role of attention. The consensus is that by tirelessly attending to oneself, to one's very stream of consciousness, to one's immediate physical actions, to one's thoughts and emotions -- one loosens the hold of thought-feeling complexes and stops them from obstructing one's clear vision of one's Self.
States and Structures of Consciousness
Before proceeding further, it will be useful to introduce a series of new concepts for thinking about spiritual experience, derived from Allan Combs' recent book Radiance of Being. These concepts will help us to put the variety of wisdom traditions in perspective, and they will also be useful in later chapters, in other ways.
First, Combs provides a categorization of wisdom traditions in the form of a "coordinate system" with four axes: ontic/noetic, anabolic/catabolic, constructive/emergent, and introverted/extraverted. Ontic traditions are based on transforming a person's state of being; noetic traditions, on the other hand, are based on gaining greater knowledge. Anabolic or "building-up" traditions are based on constructing ever more refined structures within the mind, while catabolic or "breaking-down" traditions, which are based on tearing apart structures in the mind that obstruct understanding. Constructive traditions place an emphasis on the gradual progress toward higher levels of being, while emergent traditions expect sudden leaps of progress toward higher levels. Finally, there are introverted traditions -- those which focus on achieving a state of inner perfection, withdrawn from the world; and extraverted traditions, those which focus on achieving a state of inner perfection while continually engaged with the world.
The ultimate goal of every wisdom tradition, no matter what its position on this coordinate system, is the attainment of an"enlightened" state of consciousness. This term may not mean quite the same thing in every tradition, but the general sense is the same. A wise or enlightened person is someone who sees beyond the trivia of everyday reality, and is in touch with the universe in a more fundamental sense. The difference between different traditions lie in the way this goal is supposed to be achieved.
In order to understand the difference between enlightened and ordinary states of consciousness, it is first necessary to clarify the nature of "states of consciousness" themselves. Perhaps the largest achievement of Combs' work is his clear distinction between states of consciousness, structures of consciousness and states of mind.
The definition of consciousness is a vexing matter. Scientific psychology tends to focus on the functions of consciousness: it makes sensory perceptions into coherent wholes, it dredges information up from memory, it carries out logical trains of thought, etc. Spiritual traditions are concerned with the function of consciousness also, in particular with the use of focused attention to weaken habitual thought, feeling and behavior patterns. But in the main, spiritual conditions are more concerned with the experience of consciousness than its outward uses and manifestations. And the experience of consciousness -- experience itself! -- is something about which science has had disappointingly little to say.
I will have more to say about the nature of consciousness later, from both the scientific and phenomenological points of view. For now, however, a few simple concepts will suffice. The key point, for the discussion to follow, is to distinguish consciousness from raw awareness. Awareness is the feeling of "being in the world" or just "being" -- the simple fact of presence, of experience. Awareness, in itself, is just awareness; it has no qualities besides just being awareness. Consciousness is different; it has particular qualities. Consciousness is awareness as modulated by the structure of mind. Thus a "state of consciousness" may be understood as a particular kind of relationship between awareness and mind.
This point of view leaves the question of the basi nature of awareness untouched -- which is, perhaps, just as it should be. There is something intrinsically inexplicable about the essential core of experience. This is just another way of saying that the higher Self, atman, is formless. But there is nothing inexplicable about the differences between different varieties of experience. This is not mathematics, where all terms must be rigorously defined before they can be used to define other terms. Here we are beginning with an intentionally undefined concept, awareness, and using it to build another concept, consciousness. A state of consciousness is different from a mere "state of mind," such as being annoyed, pleased, wondrous, etc.
Examples of states of consciousness are: sleeping, ordinary waking consciousness, tripping on LSD, being stoned, being drunk, deep meditation, and spiritual enlightenment. Within each state of consciousness there are many possible states of mind. For instance, one can be soundly asleep or just barely asleep; one can have a good acid trip or a bad trip, a sense-dominated trip or a thought-dominated trip.
The relatively discrete nature of states of consciousness is a vivid phenomenological fact. In general, the differences between various states of mind within a given state of consciousness are far less than the differences between a state of mind in one state of consciousness and the state of mind in another. For instance, no one would confuse any acid trip state of mind with any sleeping state of mind, nor any drunk state of mind with any stoned state of mind.
There is also a qualitative dynamic difference between states of mind and states of consciousness. States of mind within a state of consciousness will tend to change into each other fairly continuously, but states of consciousness are generally more distinct. The transition between one state of consciousness and the other is usually a striking, introspectively notable event.
There are some borderline states of mind, spanning different states of consciousness but yet not quite defining their own states of consciousness. However, these do not form a major component of our experience. For instance, the hypnagogic and hypnopompic states, experienced on falling asleep or waking up, are qualitatively very different from either ordinary waking consciousness or sleeping consciousness. They are full-fledged states of consciousness rather than borderline states of mind. On the other hand, driving while extremely tired is perhaps a genuine borderline state of mind. It is an uneasy condition of being, combining fear, relaxation, brief intervals of intense alertness, brief intervals of shallow sleep, and sometimes also brief intervals of dreamlike awareness. It lies at the intersection of sleeping, waking and hypnagogic/hypnapompic states of consciousness. Perhaps it is vaguely similar to (though surely far less unpleasant than) the state of mind experienced by individuals undergoing certain types of sleep depriviation torture -- for instance, the torture reported by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in Gulag Archipelago, in which a person is forced to stand for days on end, and is beaten and kicked mercilessly whenever they fall asleep and slump down to the floor.
Finally, beyond states of consciousness, there are structures of consciousness. These are general frameworks for understanding the world. Too thoroughgoing and substantial to be erected within a single mind, they rather emerge with an age or a culture. Following Jean Gebser, Combs identifies four structures of consciousness that have been observed in human history: the archaic, the magic, the mythic and the mental. A fifth structure of consciousness, the integral, was proposed by Gebser as a probable future for the human race. Each structure of consciousness gives rise to a loosely-constrained family of states of consciousness.
The archaic structure refers to truly prehistoric consciousness -- before tools, language, and other such modern inventions separated us from the physical world. It is, in essence, the animal's view of the world: a consciousness focused entirely on reactions to external, physical events. Next, themagical structure of the universe retains the feeling of unity contained in archaic consciousness, but adds on a feeling of separateness. In the magical world-view, mind is separate from universe, but is continually joined with universe by subtle magical connections. Gebser identifies magical consciousness with the world-view of cavemen; he observes it in the semiotics of Paleolithic cave paintings. The recent discovery of 50,000 year old paintings in Australia's Northern Territory should provide new information in this regard.
In mythic consciousness, the human mind discovers its own depths: it finds a richness of inner structures reflective of, but quite distinct from, the structures it perceives in the outer world. The mind constructs its own structures to mirror and complement the structures of the external world -- unlike magical consciousness, where the basic unity of mental and physical structures is consciously and continually acknowledged.
Finally, following mythic consciousness, there is mental consciousness, in which being is equated with reasoning, or conscious thought. This attitude is exemplified by Descartes' "I think, therefore, I am." Mental consciousness places the self in the head, rather than in the heart. It thus distances the self from the body, from the pulse of physical being-in-the-world. This is where we are now, and where we have been, in the West, for the past 2000 years or so.
Gebser's last stage, integral consciousness, is purely conjectural: it is a return to spiritual, experiential foundations, but without abandoning the order, efficiency and creative ability gained by mental consciousness. It is, in essence, a synthesis of science and spirituality. This book, as a whole, might be interpreted as an argument for the possibility of integral consciousness. For it gives a view of the human being that incorporates both the reason (science) that is central to mental consciousness, and the direct experience (spirituality) that is central to previous structures of consciousness. More particularly, what I call the digital dharma dream is the idea that computer technology is the Royal Road to integral consciousness. To be sure, virtual reality and AI are not what Gebser had in mind, but, as I will argue, they fit the bill rather nicely!
Each structure of consciousness contains a number of states of consciousness within it -- just as each state of consciousness contains a number of states of mind within it. Some states of consciousness -- e.g. sustained, inspired creative thought -- were not readily accessible to individuals embodying the archaic or magical structures of consciousness. Similarly, some of the states of consciousness native to the magical structure of consciousness are doubtless inaccessible to us, whose minds embody mental consciousness.
Wisdom traditions, as we know them today, have their roots in the mythic structure of consciousness, but have been elaborated and refined in terms of mental consciousness. They are hybrids, so to speak. It is precisely their mythic elements which render them so confusing and apparently absurd to the scientific mind. On the other hand, these mythic elements are also responsible for a great deal of the wisdom traditions' emotional appeal. For instance, Zen Buddhism, in its purestform, fits rather snugly into the mental structure of consciousness. It is not tied to ceremony, scripture or deity; it is based on insight alone. Traditional yoga, on the other hand, with its focus on the body and on ritual, is far more mythic in nature. But in practice, these distinctions are not usually very clear. Zen temples are full of statues of the Buddha -- a piece of emotional symbolism that is a full-scale throwback to mythic consciousness. It seems very, very difficult to maintain a wisdom tradition without constant appeal to mythic structures of consciousness. Indeed, it might be argued that one of the main functions of religion in today's society is to keep alive the mythic consciousness within all of us.
All the wisdom traditions are working toward the same psychological goals -- a recognition of the divine in all things; an understanding of and oneness with the highest level of being, the inner Self. However, the different traditions involve different paths, and they may, ultimately, lead to different states of consciousness -- or at very least, different habitual states of mind within the same general state of consciousness. It is often assumed that the end state of "enlightenment" achieved by different traditions is always the same, but there is no real reason to believe this.
The manifest indescribability of the "enlightened" state of consciousness may seem to preclude any analytical discussion. In the end, though, all states of consciousness are indescribable to those who have never experienced them. For instance, no man can ever know what a female orgasm is like. Each woman's orgasm is indescribable to a man -- a woman can string together scores of evocative words, but the core of the experience will still be absent. But this basic indescribability doesn't imply that all female orgasms are the same. Similarly, there is no way to convey the essence of an LSD trip to someone who has never had one. You can make up phrases -- "seeing through to the essence of reality," "pure ontological anarchy," "everything comes alive" -- but these don't communicate more than a vague idea. But not all acid trips are equivalent; far from it.
Of course, one might at this point observe that all experiences are ultimately incommunicable. But there is a clear sense in which unknown states of consciousness are less communicable than alien states of mind within the same state of consciousness, just as unknown states of mind are less incommunicable than unknown experiences within the same state of mind. And unknown structures of consciousness are the least communicable of all.
An example of different enlightened states of mind may be found in Combs' distinction between introverted and extraverted wisdom traditions. An introverted tradition (like some forms of hinayana Buddhism) is focussed on the suppression of desires; an extraverted tradition is focusses on the mindful experience of desires. The difference is whether one avoids worldly life, or tries to experience it in a more mindful and genuine way. It seems plain that the systematically detached sage and the sage who lives a worldly life are experiencing different things. Iam not saying that one is better than the other, only that the two would seem quite different. The extent of the differences between different enlightened states of mind is not clear. Perhaps there is a common state of consciousness called enlightenment, and sages from different traditions vary only in the way they occupy the possible states of mind within this state of consciousness. Or perhaps there are different states of consciousness altogether. We do not need to answer this question at this point; but it is something well worth thinking about, for anyone concerned with their own spiritual evolution.
MIND IN CLASSICAL INDIAN PHILOSOPHY
With these concepts under our belt, let us now look at the ideas about mind implicit in some particular spiritual traditions. I will begin with Vedanta, the source of the hierarchy of being which I have used, in slightly modified form, to structure this book.
Vedanta is one of six schools in classical Indian philosophy. The Vedantic method for purifying the mind and achieving unity with one's higher Self has three steps. As preliminary preparation for these three steps, however, an individual is supposed to rid themselves of a number of harmful presuppositions. The extreme rigor of these preliminary preparations is almost humorous. If one were to open a Vedantic school in the modern day, and set the completion of these preparations as entrance requirements, one would find oneself with an awfully small enrollment.
The preliminary preparations for the Vedantic path are as follows. First, it is necessary to learn to discriminate between the permanent and impermanent aspects of oneself -- between one's underlying, invariant awareness and one's psychosocial identity. Next, one must learn what makes it possible for the continually changing, momentary "me"s to create a continuous "I." One must cease to be emotionally attached to material gains, or hypothetical otherworldly gains. One must achieve six virtues:
Controlling the mind so as to rest it firmly on a single object
Withdrawing the senses from objects of pleasure
Enduring hardships without anxiety
Faith in the Vedantic teachings, and in one's guru
Firm resting of the mind on Brahman
An intense desire to liberate oneself from egotism and ignorance.
Having carried out these preparations, one is ready to follow the three steps of the Vedantic path:
Careful study of the teachings of the Vedanta
Repeated and deep reflection and contemplation on what is learned from these teachings
Becoming so absorbed in contemplation of the higher Self (Brahman, or Atman) that no other thought enters one's mind
The essential focus here is on inquiry into the nature of the true Self. The preliminary preparations are intended to ensure that the student is aware of the difference between the true self and the worldly self, and is focussed on the needs of the true self rather than the worldly self. The three steps are designed to help the true self, the Higher Self or Atman, to finally take control of the worldly, psychosocial self. First comes rational inquiry, whereby one considers all possible refutations of the Vedantic doctrines, and realizes their falsity. Then comes intensive meditation on the Higher Self, the vortex of awareness. In Combs' terminology, this tradition is anabolic, constructive, and noetic. One seeks to gradually build up knowledge and understanding through study, reflection, and contemplation.
Psychologically, the most important point here is the distinction between the two selves. The lower, psychosocial self resides on the levels of thought and feeling; the higher Self is at the apex of the hierarchy of being. The psychosocial self consists of the comings and goings of thoughts, habits and feelings. It dies and is reborn at every instant. The higher self is constant and may be understood as the ground on which the patterns of the psychosocial self are drawn.
A more familiar school of Indian philosophy is Yoga. Popular in the West mostly for its regime of stretching and breathing exercises, Yogic practice actually consists of eight limbs, which are intended to be practiced together as part of a total psychophysical programme. There are five preparatory limbs: asana, the familiar practice of physical postures; pranayama, breath control; pratyahara, the withdrawing of senses from external stimuli; yama, the study of religious books; and niyama, the purification of the body. Once these have been mastered to a certain degree, one can turn one's focus more to the three most crucial limbs: dharana, the focussing of unbroken attention on some object; dhyana, sustained meditation on the characteristics of an object; and finally samadhi, the isolation of consciousness from its object.
While Vedanta stresses inquiry into the self, Yoga focuses on "control." In Combs' scheme, Yoga is anabolic, ontic and constructive. It aims toward a progressively improving state of being, which builds up gradually toward an ultimately perfect condition. This improvement in being is achieved through a special series of mental and physical exercises.
According to the Yoga Sutra, the mind grew up to serve the body. It evolved to help fulfill desires, and to help choose between different desires. However, the mind also has a purpose beyond the body's immediate desires. It can respond to the inner goal of life, as well. "You must control the flow of ideas in your mind," it is said. "If you can, you will be your own true man, but if not you will be the pitiful victim of circumstances." The mind is thus portrayed as a set of functionalities which can be deployed toward at least two different goals: the goal of fulfilling the immediate desires of the flesh, or the goal offulfilling the inner nature of the Self.
Traditional yoga practice is based on a rigid series of physical and mental exercises, designed to build one up to higher and higher levels of being. In certain types of yoga, this is symbolized by the experience of a ball of light moving gradually up from the base of the spine toward the head. The higher the inner light is, the further toward the upper reaches of the mind the experience of yogic purification has gone. In Sri Aurobindo's Integral Yoga, on the other hand, one wants the light to move down from the head to the base of the spine -- one wants enlightenment to proceed from the mind down gradually to bhe body.
There is an intricate psychology that goes along with this practice. In the Yoga Sutra, the oldest written source of yogic philosophy, it is stated that there are five different kinds of ideas: "right knowledge, wrong knowledge, fancy, sleep and memories." This is a fairly arbitrary categorization, but no more so than many of the categorizations in modern scientific psychology. Human woes, in the Yogic view, are caused by miscategorizations. One may mistake fancy for right knowledge, substituting some construction of one's imagination for the true promptings of one's higher Self. One may confuse memory and fancy, thus building up a false view of the world, which will lead to wrong knowledge. One may mistake wrong knowledge for right knowledge -- e.g., falsely taking the "needs" of the flesh for the true needs of the higher Self.
The most problematic of all the Yogic categories is memory. For it is memory that allows pleasures and desires to persist even when there is no physical cause for them. In this sense, memory places false desires, fancies, in place of true physical needs. These fabricated desires present themselves to the mind as true physical needs. An example is a feeling of hunger that persists after the body is physically full. Remembering the good taste the food created, one wants to experience this taste again. This is the stuff of which addictions of all kinds are built: addictions to food, drugs, sex, violence, television, individual people. The ultimate culprit is memory, in which images of pleasurable entities appear as real as the entities themselves.
Of course, the Perennial Philosophy teaches that physical entities are no more real than anything else, so there is in a sense no error in mistaking fancies for realities. But what is lacking in the ordinary mind, according to Yogic teachings, is a control over one's mental categorizations. The categorizations occur automatically, unconsciously, and then they control us. Fancies slip into reality without our knowing it. The dynamics of ideas must be bent to the will -- the process of categorization must be made conscious.
To put it another way, one may say that what memory does is to create a false notion of the Self. It gives rise to the notion that the Self is some kind of summation of our past thoughts, feelings and experiences, instead of a deep inner core that lies entirely beyond these things.
Knowledge, in yoga, is different from thought. Knowledge is the experience of higher, emergent unity: thus it is, at minimum, the experience of the vignanamaya level of being. Each experience of knowledge places a new whole in the mind, and thesewholes build up, ultimately forming the Whole of all Wholes -- the One, the Self whose realization is the ultimate goal of yogic practice. Knowledge is helped along by acts of concentration, meditation and contemplation -- not by discursive or analytic thought. What one is concentrating on, meditating on, or contemplating doesn't matter; the point is the inner transformations that are facilitated by the processes of concentration, meditation and contemplation.
In short, what yoga understands as right knowledge is experience of the higher levels of being. The lower levels exist only as seeds about which higher-level understanding crystallizes. Higher level experiences place everything in its proper category, distinguishing fancies from memories, memories from realities, true needs from false ones. Lower level experiences confuse different categories with each other, leading one to follow false goals, and obscuring one's higher Self.
Vedantic and Yogic psychology are intriguing but, in the end, do not give all that much detail regarding psychological phenomena. Having dealt cursorily with psychology, the Vedantic and Yogic texts move on to other things, things considered more essential. Buddhism, however, is a different story altogether. Of all the wisdom traditions of the world, Buddhism has the most intricately developed understanding of the mind. In many areas Buddhist psychology exceeds anything that has come after it, including modern scientific notions. Buddhism takes the intense philosophical sophistication of Hinduism and applies it more specifically to the study of the mind in partiuclar.
It is important to remember, however, that, as sophisticated as it is, the aim of Buddhist psychology is primarily ethical rather than scientific. The great motivating idea of Buddhism is that all existence is suffering. Ordinary life is, in the Buddhist view, suffused with death, grief, sorrow and despair. The point of Buddhist psychology is not to understand the mind for the sake of pure understanding, but rather to understand the mind for the sake of freeing the mind from suffering. This underlying agenda places a peculiar slant on Buddhist psychological concepts, a slant which is sometimes obvious but sometimes quite subtle.
Buddhist practice is based on the "eightfold way" -- right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right mode of livelihood, right endeavour, right mindfulness, and right concentration. It has nothing to do with gods or religion in the traditional sense; it is purely empirical. The point is not to worship anyone or anything, but rather to behave in certain ways so as to induce certain states of consciousness. In this sense Buddhism is more straightforward than most wisdom traditions. However, the various schools of Buddhism differ from each other a great deal, some having a great deal of "ornamental," mythicalcontent and some, particularly Zen Buddhism, being stripped down to the bone.
In the grand scheme of things, Buddhism is not all that different from some of the more abstract Hindu traditions, such as Vedantism. Buddhism has no gods, but then, many pre-Buddhist Hindu thinkers interpreted the deities of the Vedas as abstract principles rather than real beings anyway. Buddhism represents a "middle way" between asceticism and ordinary life, but the same could be said of many Hindu traditions. Asceticism is just one particular variety of Hindu mysticism. Certainly, not all Hindu mystics were ascetics. Culturally and historically, the emergence of Buddhism was an important event. But from an outsider's point of view, looking purely at the logic of the doctrines, the main differences between Buddhism and Hinduism have to do with simplicity and emphasis.
Perhaps the Buddha's greatest step forward was to cast the core of Hindu philosophy and spiritual practice in psychological form. This statement may seem exaggerated, but its truth is revealed by a careful look at the "original insight" of Buddhism -- the so-called "law of dependent origination," which is in fact an extremely subtle psychological theory.
It is best to consider this insight in the context of the life of the Buddha. Gautama Buddha's spiritual quest was clearly rooted in rebellion against his wealthy, overprotective, fearful parents. Shielded from the uglier side of life, enveloped in stifling luxury, he developed a great curiosity about the meaning of existence. He felt the inner emptiness so common among the idle rich. Then, when he was finally exposed to the realities of illness, death and poverty, he naturally reacted by concluding that life was an horrible thing. Instead of discovering some exciting new reality, the curious young aristocrat emerged from his cushioned life to discover unspeakable torments, and was disgusted. Reacting against his upbringing in the most extreme possible way, he left his wife and children and joined the ranks of ascetics wandering the countryside in search of enlightenment. But he became weary of torturing himself nearly to the point of death, and decided that starvation and pain were not the proper path. Rather, it must be possible to attain salvation while eating well and treating one's body in a healthy way. Resolving to treat himself well, but not extravagantly, he embarked upon a lengthy meditation, and vowed not to move until he had solved the problem of existence and suffering.
Of course, he succeeded (if not, we would never have heard of him). His meditation was a combination of sheer mind-emptying concentration and intuitive, analytical insight. It was a profound instance of creative inspiration. In Vedantic terms, it was an instance of vignanamaya-level higher intuition, derived in the context of an intense experience of atman. As recorded in the Lalita-vistara, the main thrust of the Buddha's insight was as follows:
He thought: wretched is it that this world has come about, namely, is born, grows old, dies, passes away, is reborn. And one knows no escape from this whole mass of pain....
Then again, the Bodhisattva thought: when what exists doold age and death come to be, and what is the cause of old age and death? He thought: When birth exists, old age and death arise, for old age and death have birth as their cause.
In the same way birth has coming into existence as its cause; coming into existence has grasping as its cause; grasping has craving as its cause; craving has sensation as its cause; sensation has contact as its cause; contact has the six sense organs as its cause; the six sense organs have mind and body as their cause; mind and body have consciousness as their cause; consciousness has the dispositions as its cause; the dispositions have ignorance as their cause.
This precise train of thought is no doubt rendered less convincing by the passage of centuries, and by the translation from Sanskrit to English. But the idea should be clear. What is meant by ignorance (avidya) is basically the attitude of mind that attributes fixed reality to things not possessing it (in Yogic terms, the confusion of fancy and reality, or right knowledge and wrong knowledge). Thus, the Buddha's insight was as follows. Existence, birth, is caused by organisms grasping at life. Grasping at life is caused by cravings, which are caused by feelings, sensations; by the sensation that certain things will be more satisfying than others. Feelings and sensations exist only relative to the mind, to conscious experience -- the external world does not exist objectively, but is in large part a construction of mentality. And, finally, our mentality is a result of ignorance -- of assuming things are real and substantial when in fact they are just mental assumptions, made out of supposed convenience.
So, Buddha realized that ignorance, lack of right understanding, is the basic root of suffering. If we but understood the world properly, saw the world as it really was, then suffering would cease. Because suffering, in the end, is mainly in the mind -- in the state of consciousness. This is what makes Buddhism a noetic wisdom tradition: knowledge is placed at the center.
But then the Buddha asked himself: What is the cause of ignorance? He answered: Ignorance itself is caused by attachment, by grasping, by craving. When our cravings are satisfied, we become attached to the thing that has satisfied our craving. We give it an absolute reality because we want it to have an absolute reality; because it has satisfied our craving. Thus cravings make us ignorant; they make us choose ignorance.
Ignorance leads to craving, craving leads to attachment, and attachment leads to more ignorance.
Pleasures of the flesh are one example of this process. Craving sexual fulfillment, and receiving it from the body of woman, a man becomes attached to the body of woman. This body, which has given him such pleasure, persists in his mind as an image. He mulls over it again and again, going back to it whenever he is troubled, or idle. As a thought, it gives him joy or solace. But in carrying out these reflections, he inadvertently "reifies" the body of woman in his mind; he givesit a definiteness and ultimate reality that it did not previously have. He becomes upset if the female body disappears from his life, or if the females in his life somehow change for the worse. Now his thoughts and his perceptions are colored by his obsession with the female body. He is less able to receive pleasure from other things; and he craves female love even more. Attachment and the distortion of perception (ignorance) feed off each other.
Another example, and one of universal relevance, is the psychosocial self, the experientially-constructed "ego." Having become attached to one's experiences (one's karma) one reifies them into a definite entity, a whole, an "I." Then one becomes upset when this "I" changes, or when, at death, it ceases to exist. One's internal image of oneself distorts one's perceptions to a tremendous degree; the ordinary person has an entirely "self-centered" view of the world. Since one mistakes one's ego for oneself, one becomes upset when the expectations of one's ego are not fulfilled. And when one's ego expectations are fulfilled, one reifies the object that has fulfilled them. Ego leads to distortion, hence to ignorance; ignorance of the true nature of the inner self leads to the construction of the ego.
At bottom, taught the Buddha, there is no such thing as the "self" at the heart of a person. There is only a system of habit-patterns, interacting with each other to form a self-supporting (dependently causative) system. Clear vision reveals that the self has no reality at all, that each part of the self is just supported by other parts. Having realized this, one no longer concerns onself with illusory issues of self-improvement, with the fulfillment of selfish goals. One perceives the universe as it is, a formless flux of energy and movement, in which forms dance in and out by their own mysterious logic.
Buddha's law of dependent origination represents a much deeper psychological understanding than is found, for example, in most of the works of Freud. Freud saw symptoms as being caused by underlying problems, and taught that curing a symptom was of no use, because it would not cure the underlying problems. Curing a symptom would just lead to the underlying problem manifesting itself in some other way. In fact, however, psychotherapists have not found this to be generally true. In many cases, curing a symptom does seem to cure whatever "underlying problem" there might have been, absolutely and with no side-effects. This has led to the development of a "behavioural" approach to therapy, in which the focus is precisely on curing the symptoms. Today most therapists take a balanced approach, combining symptom-based work with excavations into the unconscious. The point is that symptoms and deeper underlying habit-patterns are mutually dependent. They rely on each other, produce each other, evolve with each other. Changing either one will evolve the other. There is a dependent origination of symptoms and underlying problems, and modern therapists intuitively recognize this. They know that, to deal with psychological problems, one must respect this feedback.
In a medical context, treating the symptom works onlysometimes. You don't treat measles by covering up the red lumps with make-up. On the other hand, you do treat a fever by giving someone a cold bath. Even though this does not cure the cause of the fever, it helps to restore the system to a better condition, in which it is better able to combat the cause of the fever by its own methods. The situation in psychology is much the same as in medicine, but it would seem that treating the symptom works more often in a mental context. The mind is a more richly and intricately interconnected, synergetic system than the body, so there are more avenues for two different aspects of mental process to affect each other.
For instance, suppose we have a woman, Jane, with an excessive temper, who screams and curses at her family and throws things around the house. The Freudian approach would argue that there is no point in trying to directly modify these behaviors, because behavior modification doesn't solve the underlying problems. Instead, it would urge us to look for the roots of the problem, probably in Jane's childhood. Suppose Jane's mother displayed the same behaviors; and suppose her father had similar characteristics to her present mate. Then the therapist could rightly conclude that Jane has a great deal of unresolved anger against her father. She is imitating the behavior of her mother; replaying childhood scripts.
In practice, however, even if Jane's anger problem is due to childhood difficulties, it may well be more effective to focus the therapeutic process on practical anger control techniques. By becoming aware when she is starting to get angry, and acting on this awareness by leaving the house, breathing slowly, reflecting on her own cognitive distortions, etc., Jane may be able to greatly reduce the incidence and violence of her outbursts. Suppose these methods are able to largely "cure" Jane's symptoms -- then what? Will the underlying childhood problems manifest themselves in another way? It is possible that, say, Jane will begin to imitate her mother's alcoholism, as an internal compensation for having stopped imitating her mother's violence. But this is not the most likely occurence. An equally plausible outcome is that, by curing her anger problem and thus becoming less similar to her mother, Jane will become more open to criticizing her mother's behavior. Fully confronting her mother's behavior may help her to confront her anger against her mother, and finally to genuinely forgive her mother, and move beyond her childhood problems. Clearly, there are many, many possibilities here; and the reason for this abundance of possibilities is that there is an intricate interdependence between the symptom (lack of anger control) and the underlying cause (underlying childhood frustrations). Changing each one changes the other.
Like the modern therapist, Buddha was taking an interdependence-based approach to psychological problems -- but on a cosmic rather than a personal level. He was not diagnosing any individual's particular neuroses; rather, he was diagnosing the problems of human life in general. The symptom was: suffering. The underlying cause, he determined, was: ignorance. If we were not ignorant, if the mind were studiously observing its every action, then we would never feel suffering, because we would know the illusory nature of the things we were sufferingabout. By being ignorant of what it does, the mind takes its own constructions as absolute reality, and lets these sham realities wound it.
A Freudian approach to the suffering/ignorance problem would have been to try to cure ignorance, all at once, without any regard for curing the problem of suffering. Work on the underlying level only. This is only one step from the ascetic approach, in which the symptom (suffering) is actually exacerbated in the name of making a quick cure of the underlying problem (ignorance). "Torture yourself to find true knowledge," said the ascetics, "so that you will come to know that your suffering does not exist!"
The Buddhist religion, however, very neatly works on both levels, both symptom and cause. It proposes a way of life which is devised to reduce suffering to a practical minimum. And at the same time, this way of life is supposed to lead one towards greater knowledge, towards the elimination of ignorance. By displaying compassion toward people, by eating only vegetables, by avoiding preoccupation with material wealth and pleasures of the flesh, by meditating regularly, one is giving oneself a relatively serene existence. A mildly pleasant existence, to be sure, but not an ecstatic, passionate existence -- because extremes of passion contain within them extremes of pain. One is alleviating the problem of suffering as much as is possible given one's state of ignorance. And then one is trying, by means of meditation in particular, to alleviate one's condition of ignorance. The less ignorant one becomes, the better one will be able to adhere to the rest of the regime, to live, think and interact rightly. The better one follows the regime, the easier a time one will have meditating and reducing one's ignorance. Everything fits together into a self-reinforcing whole.
Of course, this synergy between the reduction of suffering and the reduction of ignorance is not really new to Buddhism. It is implicit in a great deal of other spiritual traditions, including some Hindu sects. But what is really new in Buddhism is the simple, straightforward psychological focus of the practices. One is not worshipping gods, nor searching for some God within, some nebulous higher Self. There is nothing mystical whatsoever. One is trying to make oneself suffer less, and understand more, and that is all. Who could argue with that?
Many have argued with Buddha's conclusions, admittedly, and some with considerable force. We will consider Friedrich Nietzsche's anti-Buddhistic philosophy below. But the point is that Buddhism has a great simplicity and elegance which is based on the Buddha's deep psychological insight. Buddhism is as much a collection of practices based on psychological theory as it is a religion.
From the Buddha's initial insights, a vast body of Buddhist psychological theory has been developed. The central assumptions of this body of theory are twofold. First, that most of one's conduct is determined by the karma (habit-patterns) accumulated from one's past actions. Second, that through will and attention it is possible to overcome the force of karma and guide one'sbehavior. Essentially, karma are accumulated habit-patterns.
The karma/volition dichotomy is somewhat similar to the unconscious/conscious dichotomy in modern psychology. But there are significant differences. For one thing, in traditional Buddhism, there is a focus on reincarnation (a notion that is common to many, but by no means all wisdom traditions). Thus, in most schools of Buddhism, karma is taken to be accumulated, not only over one's present lifetime, but over one's past lifetimes as well. However, some Buddhists do not believe in reincarnation; for these Buddhists, karma refers to simply to habit-patterns accumulated over one's own lifetime, or inherited from one's parents.
The result of outsmarting "dependent origination," of using volition to overcome karmic patterns and break the cycle of suffering and ignorance, is a state of enlightenment. As in all wisdom traditions, the Buddhist state of enlightenment is described vividly and enthusiastically, but not entirely clearly. It is a state of emptiness, but not emptiness as we would typically conceive it. It is not an emptiness devoid of objects, but rather an emptiness filled with objects that are not perceived as solid. It is a full emptiness, an empty fullness.
A key philosophical difference between Buddhist and Hindu philosophy has to do with the nature of the self, as experienced during enlightenment. While Vedanta speaks of the higher Self, which is formless but still definitely existent, Buddhism preaches the doctrine of no-self (anatta rather than atman). The two doctrines agree on the fact that the psychosocial self is not a person's deeper identity. But they disagree on whether there is any deeper identity at all. It is not clear whether this is a purely semantic distinction, or a genuine experiential distinction. Is there, fundamentally, any difference between
A: becoming so absorbed in the contemplation of the formless inner Self as to have no other thought in one's mind
as suggested in Vedanta, and
B:becoming so absorbed in the contemplation of no-self, nothing whatsoever, as to have no thought in one's mind
as suggested by the Buddhist doctrine? Or are these perhaps just different ways of speaking about the same experience? If atman, the inner Self, is really formless, then how does it differ from the "Emptiness" or no-self of the Buddhists? Is there a phenomenological difference between formlessness and emptiness?
Further confusion as to the nature of Buddhist enlightenment is caused by the historical and philosophical rift between hinayana and mahayana Buddhism. Hinayana Buddhism focuses on extinguishing desires. It takes the Buddhist teaching that "all existence is suffering" quite literally. Nirvana, as portrayed in hinayana texts, is characterized by an absence of desires, a complete and sacred aloofness from the ordinary human world. On the other hand, mahayana Buddhism (a later split-off from hinayana) is more focussed on carrying out ordinary life activities with a mindful attitude. While still maintaining "all existence is suffering," it preaches transcendence over sufferingas manifested in the course of ordinary life activities. Nirvana, as portrayed in mahayana texts, is not characterized so much by an absence of desires as by a continual awareness of and control over desires. One is not making one's desires go away, one is merely being conscious of them -- conscious that they are desires, with their own momentum, rather than the core of one's self. One might argue that the mahayana and hinayana nirvanas are really the same -- they are one state of consciousness described in two different languages. But again, this is not entirely clear.
My feeling is that, in both these cases, we are dealing with states of mind that are similar but not quite identical. Thus, I will assume that the two experiences of union with atman and union with no-self are very similar in the overall spectrum of states of consciousness. They may be two distinct states of consciousness, or else just two different states of mind within the same state of consciousness; but this is an issue that need not be decided at present. Terminologically, I will reserve the term atman for an inner self with some definite substance, but I will occasionally speak of the "higher Self" in such a way as to mean "no-self" as well as atman.
Similarly, in the case of mahayana versus hinayana enlightnment, one would minimally postulate two different states of mind within the enlightened state of consciousness: one of no-desire, and the other of mindfully-experienced-desire. Or, on the other hand, one might postulate two different states of consciousness corresponding to these different experiences.
The Buddhist notion of consciousness is extremely intricate and is worth pursuing for a short while. It must be emphasized, however, that the basic concept of consciousness (citta or vi-jnana) is no clearer in Buddhist psychology than it is in modern scientific psychology. Thus, the exploration of Buddhist theories of consciousness will lead us to a number of interesting ideas, but not to any particularly definite conclusions. Consciousness is an intricate maze, which winds around in beautiful patterns with no entrances or exists. The Buddhist theorists explored this maze with an enthusiasm and intelligence that we in the West, as the twenty-first century dawns, are only beginning to equal.
In Buddhist thought, a very clear distinction is made between consciousness that results from habit-patterns (karma) and consciousness that results from independent, wise volition. But, on the other hand, the distinction between consciousness, unconsciousness, and mind as a whole is made only unclearly. In some cases, a strict distinction between consciousness and mind in general is upheld; for example, physical and sensory consciousness are distinguished from mental consciousness. Often, though, consciousness seems to be taken to encompass all aspects of mind -- which is perfectly reasonable, since Buddhist psychology is fundamentally based on inner experience. From an experiential point of view, there really is no mind beyond thevarious states of consciousness we experience. Everything else is conjecture, or to put it more strongly, illusion.
The relation between habit-dominated consciousness and basic, karma-free consciousness is elucidated by the image of consciousness as a stream, or river. Buddhism excels in this respect; it gives a vivid picture of the dynamic and flowing nature of consciousness. Consciousness, no matter what its contents, is viewed as continuous process of flux and change. This flowing stream is the basic ground of existence.
Ordinary mental processes are viewed as interruptions of the stream. For instance, consider a mental process focussed on the observation of an external stimulus. Such a process is said to involve six stages:
The contact of an object with the sense-organs and the perceptual systems
The excitation of bhavanga, the stream of consciousness or stream of existence
The halting of the stream of consciousness by the reflecting mind
The definite recognition of an object perceived
The storing of the object perceived in memory
Cessation of object awareness, and return to the unbroken stream of consciousness.
Not all object-based cognitive processes proceed through all these stages. The full sequence of processes is said to take 17 thought-moments. If the full sequence is to occur, the stream will be interrupted within one thought-moment of the object's perception. If the stream is not interrupted for two or three thought-moments, then the object will not be remembered. If it takes five to nine thought-moments for the stream to be interrupted, then the percepts will remain in disorganized form, and will not be definitely "apperceived." If it takes more than ten moments for vibrations in the stream of consciousness to arise, then the object will not even excite sensation and perception.
This description of cognitive process focusses on perception of external objects, but it may be transferred to internal objects as well. I.e., it may be an emotion or a volition that interrupts the stream, instead of a sound or a sight. The logic is the same. Ordinary states of consciousness are portrayed as particular interruptions of a basic underlying stream. It may be an external object which interrupts the stream, or it may be a volition.
Along these lines, in the Samyutta-nikaya II, enlightenment is envisioned as the freedom of consciousness from objects and goals of all kinds:
[I]f we neither will nor intend to do and are not occupied with something, there is no object for the support of consciousness; hence no foothold for it; with consciousness having no foothold or growth, there is no rebirth or recurrent becoming in the future. In their absence birth, ageing and dying, grief, sorrow, suffering, lamentation and despair in the future are stopped. Thus is the stopping ofthe whole mass of suffering.
It is the objects and volitions that obstruct consciousness and are, in the end, the cause of suffering. If the stream of consciousness could be kept free of obstructions, then it would not reify objects, it would not ignorantly process and memorize objects as though they had fixed reality. It would always act out of its essential dynamism and flux.
But how can one keep the stream of consciousness free of obstructions, short of being brain-dead and not perceiving, willing, or thinking at all? There is, of course, a secret way out from the dilemma. The catch is that in superordinary states of consciousness, objects and volitions need not interrupt the stream. By constantly keeping wise attention in the foreground, by meditating on objects and on nothingness, it is supposed to be possible to experience objects and volitions without interrupting bhavanga, the stream of consciousness. Ultimately it may even be possible to experience intense emotions this way, a question which gets back to the difference between hinayana and mahayana enlightenment. Some thinkers would say that the enlightened mind can experience intense emotions without interrupting the stream of awareness. Others would say that this ability of the enlightened mind extends only to objects and volitions, and that the enlightened mind simply acts on a level where extreme emotions do not exist.
The classical Buddhists, like all the ancient Indians, had a particular penchant for enumerating things. The different aspects of mind and consciousness did not escape this deep-seated urge to count. For instance, in the Majjhima-nikaya I we find the following:
And what is grasping? There are four graspings: after sense-pleasures, after speculative view, after rite and custom, after the theory of self
And what is craving? There are six classes of craving: for material shapes, sounds, smells, tastes, touches and mental objects.
And what is feeling? There are six classes of feeling: feeling due to visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, physical and mental impact.
And what is impression? There are six classes of impression: visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, physical and mental.
And what are the six sensory fields? The field of the eye, ear, nose tongue, body, mind.
And what is mind-and-body? Feeling, perception, volition, impression, wise attention: this is called mind. The four great elements and the material shape derived from them: this is called body. Such is mind and such is body. This is called mind-and-body.
And what is consciousness? There are six classes of consciousness: visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, physical and mental consciousness.
And what are the karma-formations? There are three: karma-formations of body, of speech, of thought.
And what is ignorance? Whatever is the unknowing in regard to suffering, its arising, its stopping, and the course leading to its stopping -- this is called ignorance.
The kernel of this particular list of lists is the definition of mind. According to what is said here, a state of mind involves five aspects: feeling, perception, volition, impression and wise attention. This is actually quite an insightful categorization; it is as good a way of characterizing states of mind as anything found in the modern psychology literature. A state of mind is described by the emotions attached to it, the perceptions contained in it, the impressions obtained in it, the volitions established in it, and the wise attention or deep concentration involved in it. In this view, in order to describe a state of mind, we should ask the questions:
What is felt here?
What is perceived here?
What impressions are gained here?
What is willed here?
What is concentrated on here?
Whether or notthis classification has any absolute merit over others, it is a useful one. The difference between enlightened and unenlightened states of mind is easily identified as having to do with the role of wise attention. If wise attention is extended over everything else in the mind, over ever aspect of the whole state of consciousness, then the stream of consciousness will not be disrupted. Everything will flow on, even as willing and perception are done, emotions are felt, and impressions are gained. On the other hand, if wise attention is not present at all, or is shoved in the background, then the flow of consciousness is disrupted, karma is accumulated, and future suffering is ensured.
A more systematic approach to states of consciousness (which, in Buddhist psychology, differ in a somewhat unclear way from states of mind) is given by the cetasikas or elements of consciousness. There are seven universal elements, common to every state of consciousness. These are: contact, feeling, volition, perception, individuation, psychic life, and attention. There are also six "particular" elements of consciousness which need not be present in all conscious acts, 14 elements present in immoral acts, and 19 elements present in moral acts. Considered in this kind of detail, the Buddhist classification of states of consciousness begins to appear quite byzantine. By one categorization, there are 89 states of consciousness; by another, there are 121. Each state combines the various elements in different ways.
At this point, however, rather than continuing with the fascinating arcana of classical Buddhist psychology, it will be best to turn to a drastically simplified version of Buddhism; namely, Zen. Zen Buddhism represents a movement against all the philosophical and psychological complexities of orthodox Buddhism, a movement away from theory and back in the directionof direct experience. There are many jewels to be found in the Buddhist theory of mind. Our main point here, however, is to look for a Perennial Theory of Mind, rather than to exhaustively explore the particular insights obtained by any one tradition.
Zen is, no doubt, the variety of Buddhism that has attracted the most attention in the Western world. Zen is a particular development of mahayana Buddhism, which, according to the standard history, came about when Bodhidharma journeyed from India to China. He introduced Buddhism to the Chinese, who promptly synthesized it with their own Taoist religion, resulting in Zen.
Zen is not the only example of Indian religion finding its way to China and becoming transformed. The same path was followed by Yoga, for example, resulting in Taoist Yoga, an highly intricate alchemical discipline focussed on the achievement of immortality through mental and physical exercises. In general, Buddhism of all forms is far more prevalent in China and Southeast Asia than in India itself, where there are only a mere 6 million or so Buddhists, out of a population pushing half a billion.
Taoism is a very gentle, relaxed religion. Alan Watts called it the "watercourse way," meaning that it teaches one to flow along gently with the currents of life, like water through a stream. This metaphor resonates nicely with the Buddhist notion of the stream of consciousness, which flows unobstructed through the enlightened mind.
Traditional Taoism is associated with all sorts of specialized gods -- each profession has its own Taoist god, and, ironically, in modern Hong Kong, policemen and gangsters share the same one. There is also a huge variety of superstitious Taoist practices, designed to ensure good luck. On an abstract, philosophical level, however, Taoism is most famous for its theory of yin and yang, subtle male and female energies implicit in all things. Taoist diet, physics, philosophy and psychology are all based on the notion of balance between yin and yang. Rather than prescribing a very specific path to enlightenment, Taoism preaches the concept of balance between opposing forces. By balancing the opposing forces within oneself, one can achieve peace and harmony with oneself and the world. One might say that, in Taoism, "balance" itself is a state of consciousness, which can be achieved in all sorts of different ways, and is compatible with a huge variety of different, personally-defined states of mind.
Chinese Zen, Ch'an, is markedly less rigid and ritualistic than Indian Buddhism, a natural consequence of the strong Taoist influence. Japanese Zen, on the other hand, represents a bit of a return to formalistic structure, though with a distinctly Shinto flavor. There are also other varieties of Zen, such as Sun, practiced in Korea. All versions of Zen, however, lack the mythic and superstitious aspects of Buddhism or Taoism, adopting only the more abstract philosophical and experiential sides ofeach religion.
The word "Zen" means simply meditation. Zen is, in essence, the core of Buddhism and Taoism, with all the extras removed. All that remains in Zen is the notion of achieving oneness with the universe, with the empty core of oneself, by means of sustained, concentrated mind-emptying meditation. Since meditation alleviates both suffering and ignorance, this stripped-down practice still reflects the law of dependent origination. In a way, Zen represents a return to the ultimate simplicity of the original insights of the Buddha, as opposed to the labyrinthine theorizations of subsequent Buddhist sages and scholars. Instead of six kinds of this, seventeen units of that, and eighty-nine varieties of the other thing, one just has meditation, enlightnment and nothingness.
The minimal nature of Zen means that it is of particularly intense interest to the student of the abstract, culture-independent Perennial Philosophy. Every wisdom tradition has its inessential, purely "ornamental" and mythic aspects, but Zen would seem to have fewer of these than any other.
One might say that Zen is a polar opposite of Yoga, in the sense that it is centered on the relaxation of control, rather than the attainment of control. Some Taoist philosophers would view rigorous Yogic or Vedantic practice as a kind of mania, an obsessive behavior resulting from severe psychological imbalance. Zen incorporates this laid-back attitude by focussing on relaxing the grip of thoughts, rather than on gaining control over one's thoughts. Of course, the two approaches are not necessarily contradictory: one can seek control over one's thoughts in order to gain the power to prevent them from "gripping" one too strongly. But there is an immense difference in emphasis, and style, between the two religions.
In Combs' terms, Zen is a catabolic tradition, focused on breaking down structures, rather than building them up. It is emergent, with a focus on sudden insight rather than gradual progress. And, finally, it is noetic, based on knowledge -- understanding -- rather than being. In Zen, the right state of being follows from the right inner knowledge, whereas in yoga, the right inner knowledge comes only once, through rigorous practice, one has attained the right state of being.
Allan Combs has pointed out that Jnana yoga, not often practiced today, represents a sort of bridge between ontic and noetic traditions. As in Zen, one is supposed to achieve a direct intuitive penetration into the higher Self -- an enlightenment through insight alone. However, there is still a strong yogic overtone of becoming one with ultimate reality, as exemplified in the traditional Jnani teaching of neti, neti -- not this, not this. "I am not the gross body, I am not the five senses, I am not my thoughts or emotions, I am not the subtle prana...."
Japanese Zen master Kusho Uchiyama (whose "loose" approach makes him a bit of an iconoclast in the world of Japanese Zen Buddhism) speaks of "opening the hand of thought." While we are falling asleep at night, the hand of thought opens, and the rigid thought-feeling complexes that govern us by day are erased. Just waking up in the morning, the hand of thought is still open, and we can feel it gently close. These are what psychologists call the hypnopompic and hypnagogic states of consciousness. As Uchiyama says, the goal of Zen is to maintain this openness at all times.
Zen, like many other schools of Buddhism, collapses the hierarchy of being into two levels: unenlightened reality, and enlightened reality. Samsara and nirvana. There is no gradual progression -- there is only simple meditation. Just sitting and living, living and sitting, until one makes the sudden leap from samsara to nirvana. At which point one realizes that there was never any difference between the two anyway -- that samsara is nirvana and nirvana is samsara; that the divine is in the everyday and the everyday is in the divine.
In some sects, Zen meditation is aided by practices such as koan study. A koan is an unsolvable puzzle which the master gives the student to meditate on. The classic example is "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" Another classic, the first example in the Mumonkan collection of koans, is is the koan Mu: "A monk in all seriousness asked Joshu: 'Has a dog Buddha-nature or not?' Joshu retorted 'Mu'." Mumon's commentary on the koan Mu contains the following remarks:
In the practice of Zen you must pass through the barrier gate set up by the patriarchs. To realize this wonderful thing called enlightenment you must cut off all thoughts. If you cannot pass through the barrier and exhaust the arising of thoughts, you are like a ghost clinging to the trees and grass.
What, then, is this barrier set by the patriarchs? It is Mu, the one barrier of the supreme teaching. Ultimately, it is a barrier that is no barrier. One who has passed through it cannot only see Joshu face to face, but can walk hand in hand with the whole line of patriarchs. Indeed, he can, standing eyebrow to eyebrow, hear with the same ars and see with the same eyes.
How marvelous! Who would not want to pass through this barrier? For this you must concentrate day and night, questioning yourself through everyone of your 360 bones and 86,000 pores. Do not construe Mu as nothingness and do no conceive it in terms of existence or nonexistence. You must reach the point where you feel as though you had swallowed a red-hot iron ball that you cannot disgorge despite all your efforts. When you have cast away every illusory thought, and inside and outside are as one, you will be like a mute who has had a dream. Once you burst into enlightenment you will astound the heavens and shake the earth. As though having captured the great sword of General Kuan, you will be able to slay the Buddha should you meet him, and dispatch all patriarchs you encounter. Facing life and death, you are utterly free; in the SixRealms of Existence and the Four Modes of Birth you move about in a samadhi of innocent delight.
How, then, do you achieve this? Devote yourself to Mu energetically and wholeheartedly. If you continue this way without intermission, your mind will, like a light flashed on in the dark, suddenly become bright. Wonderful indeed!
This beautiful passage captures the essence of Zen. Zen practice is all about busting through the barrier into enlightenment. Until you're through the barrier, you're not there; you're in ordinary reality. Zen practice is either zazen, total emptying of the mind, or else koan meditation, which involves holding a paradoxical entity such as "Mu" before the mind with utter concentration. These practices are to be done, on and on, until something bursts inside -- understanding is found, and enlightenment is experienced.
In sitting zazen, doing Zen meditation, there is no need to shut out all thoughts, to forcibly attain nothingness. This too easily leads to frustration or confusion (for instance, to a mistaking of the image of nothingness for nothingness itself; a confusion of fancy with right knowledge, in the language of the Yoga Sutra). Instead, one accepts thoughts as they float by. The key is to accept their presence without clinging to them. It is quite natural for the mind to wander during zazen. It wanders away from its focus, which is nothing, and then wanders back. Sometimes it wanders even further away. The essence of Zen experience is contained in this wandering, not in the absence of wandering. One is wandering, wandering from one's wandering, wandering from one's wandering from one's wandering.... And all the while, one is brilliantly, utterly aware that one is wandering, and that one is not wandering too far, but is always staying within the loose, unattached framework of zazen. The nothingness that one is experiencing is a nothingness of wandering -- it is not an absence of thoughts, feelings or existences, but rather an absence of attachment.
As Philip Kapleau wrote in his classic book Three Pillars of Zen, "It is important in this connection to distinguish the role of transitory thoughts from that of fixed concepts. Random ideas are relatively innocuous, but ideologies, beliefs, opinions and points of view, not to mention the factual knowledge accumulated since birth (to which we attach ourselves) are the shadows which obscure the light of truth." It is the systematic nature of thoughts and feelings that obstructs clear inner vision. It is the tendency of thoughts and feelings to adhere to each other and form systems, which are then taken for the Self.
Kosho Uchiyama is yet more explicit on this point. He says, "Even if a thought of something does actually arise, as long as the thought does not grasp that something, nothing will be formed. For example, even if A (a flower) occurs, as long is it is not followed by thought B (is beautiful), no meaning such as A is B is formed. Neither is it something that could be taken in the sense of A which is B (beautiful flower). So, even if thought A does occur, as long as the thought does not continue, A occurs prior to the formation of meaning. It is not measurable in terms of meaning, and in that condition will disappear asconsciousness flows on." This is remarkably astute introspection. What obstructs right knowledge, what disrupts zazen, is not thoughts or feelings in themselves, but the compounding together of thoughts and feelings into coherent, meaningful wholes. Thought A or thought B in isolation are all right, and are not contradictory to the zazen state of consciousness. One can think "flower," or one can have the detached feeling "beauty." These are not meaningful. But when one binds the two together, one has engaged the consciousness in an act of making-real, an act of establishing something to be the case, and one has thus distracted consciousness from its steady, river-like flow. Binding "flower" and "beautiful" together is creating a false, miniature unity that distracts consciousness from the true unity of the Self-Universe.
In terms of classical Buddhist psychology, Uchiyama's construction of meaning is the same as obstruction of the stream of consciousness. It is the compounding of thoughts and feelings into coherent wholes that obstructs the stream of consciousness. Because once something is a coherent whole, it has a boundary around it and it is reified. Enlightened thought is somehow a different kind of "coherentization." It places a permeable boundary around concepts, instead of an impermeable one. It makes definite, delimited phenomena that allow awareness to flow through them. This part of the story, Uchiyama does not make clear. Zen, in its elegant simplicity, is less explanatory than orthodox Buddhism. The idea is that explanations are not needed. Once enlightenment is achieved, everything will be understood intuitively anyway. In the words of Zen Master Huang Po, "Let a tacit understanding be all."
To understand the process of attachment more deeply, let uc consider yet another Sanskrit word -- samyojama, meaning something like "mental knot." Our feelings about other people, our opinions about issues, our beliefs about ourselves, our systematic personal memories -- these are mental knots. The thought "beautiful flower" is also a mental knot, albeit a very small one. Mental knots tie things together: they bring A and B close to each other, and as a result bring A and B further away from other things. They disrupt the natural balance of the Self, of the highest level of being, in which all things are in balance, equally interdependent and interdefined.
Put another way, a mental knot is the minimal unit of dependent origination. It is a collection of illusory entities which mutually create each other. By not attending to the knot as a whole, but only seeing the parts individually, we see entities that seem to have support. We do not see that each part, which seems to have support outside itself, is in fact only supported by other parts of the same system, the same knot. Through mindfulness we can learn to see mental knots as they form; and thus, by understanding knots, we can escape their control.
In Vedantic terms, the level of anandamaya is the first step down toward mental knots, because it introduces general propensities and patterns -- too vague for the intuition to grabonto, but definitely there nonetheless. The level of vignanamaya is even closer toward mental knots: it binds particular entities together in grand, intuitive wholes. Each intuitive whole is a kind of model of the Self, the universe, but it is not the universe itself. Finally, the levels of manomaya and pranamaya are the proper home of samyojama. They involve entities bound together in a way that loses sight of the Whole. They are the realm of opposition: the realm in which truths are distinguished from falsehoods, and likes are distinguished from dislikes.
The thought "beautiful flower" automatically distinguishes the flower before one from other, uglier flowers; and automatically groups the flower together with other beautiful objects. This is the meaning of "beautiful flower" -- as will be discussed later, the meaning of an entity may be understood as the various patterns in which it is involved. "Beautiful flower" does not present itself to the mind as a natural whole, the way that "flower" and "beauty" do; it requires conscious intervention. The conscious creation of meaning is the root of samyojama. Having lost touch with the essential Self, which is the real meaning of existence, the mind stoops to create other meanings -- which, however, can never fully satisfy. Thinking "beautiful flower" without thinking "This thought 'beautiful flower' is arising here" is creating an illusion of reality, an illusion that the flower really is beautiful, when in fact this is just a collision of ideas in mind-space.
One of the peculiar traditions of Zen Buddhism is the study of koans -- short, sometimes humorous, paradoxical stories. The student is assigned a koan by his teacher, and is supposed to puzzle over for months or years until he has "solved" it to his master's satisfaction.
A simple, well-known koan is "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" More intricate examples may be found in the book Mumonkan or "Gateless Gate," produced by the Zen master Mumon in the thirteenth century. The Mumonkan consists of a collection of classical Zen koans together with his commentaries. One of the most interesting of these is the following:
JOSHU EXAMINES A MONK IN MEDITATION
Joshu went to a place where a monk had retired to meditate and asked him: "What is, is what?" The monk raised his fist. Joshu replied: "Ships cannot remain where the water is too shallow." And he left. A few days later Joshu went again to visit the monk and asked the same question. The monk answered the same way. Joshu said: "Well, given, well taken, well killed, well saved." And he bowed to the monk.
The raised fist was the same both times. Why is it Joshu did not admit the first and approved the second one? Where is the fault? Whoever answers this knows that Joshu'stongue has no bone so he can use it freely. Yet perhaps Joshu is wrong. Or, through that monk, he may have discovered his mistake. If anyone thinks that the one's insight exceeds the other, he has no eyes.
The light of the eyes is as a comet,
And Zen's activity is as lightning
The sword that kills the man
Is the sword that saves the man
It is often said that the whole point of a koan is that it is not supposed to be analyzed. But, while I do agree with this statement, I also maintain that, until one has analyzed a koan at least a little bit, one cannot fully understand why it is not supposed to be analyzed. So let me begin by presenting my own analysis of the koan "Joshu Examines a Monk in Meditation":
The key to my analysis is the following idea: by raising his fist, the monk signifies his understanding of the role of language in creating illusion. He informs Joshu that he understands what so many visionary poets have pointed out: words make the world. So, in response to the question "What is, is what?" -- a question about the ultimate nature of the world -- the monk realizes that any verbal answer would be inadequate. For language is a large part of what weaves the web of illusion. Therefore he gives a nonlinguistic answer: he raises his fist.
But of course, this is not a true avoidance of illusion. After all, raising one's fist is a kind of gestural language, and anyway, the body is just as much a part of "consensus reality" as language. And this is one plausible explanation of why Joshu does not accept the raised fist as an answer to his question. Joshu recognizes that the monk is telling him he understand the illusory nature of language. But he fears that the monk does not understand the illusory nature of physical reality. Then, the second time, the monk raises his fist, he is telling Joshu that he understands the illusory nature of physical reality but is giving Joshu a message in terms of physical reality anyway -- that he is accepting the paradox of transmitting a message which says "This message is illusion, so don't pay any attention to it."
In other words, according to my proposed analysis of the koan, the subtext is as follows:
JOSHU: I am asking you "What is, is what?", but you know that I will reject whatever answer you give me, since language can never describe what really is; language is a part of the illusion of 'consensus reality' and it is in fact a prime shaper of this illusion.
MONK: I understand exactly why you will reject whatever verbal answer you give me. Therefore, I will signify that I understand the inadequacy of language for describing true reality, by raising my fist.
JOSHU: So, you understand the illusory and devious nature of language. Very well. But do you understand the illusory nature of your own body, of the physical world? These arejust floating patterns, just part of the false consensus reality as well. True communication cannot emerge from false reality. "Ships cannot remain where the water is too shallow." I reject your answer.
JOSHU (a few days later): Now I will ask you the same question again, and see if you have learned anything. "What is, is what?"
MONK: Yes, I understand why you rejected my answer before. Physical reality is just as illusory as language. Everything is just a pattern floating in nothingness. But you, too, are just a pattern floating in nothingness. Your question itself is no more real than my answer. So my answer still stands. I will raise my fist again.
JOSHU: Yes, I see that you understand. I accept your answer. Your first raised fist was well given; and it was also well taken, since by rejecting it I transmitted to you my understanding. I accepted it by killing it, by rejecting it. But then I saved it from death, by accepting it the second time. Everything is as it should be -- obvious and impossible. "Well given, well taken, well killed, well saved."
The first time the monk raises his fist, Joshu does not accept that the monk is enlightened. But the second time the monk raises his fist, Joshu somehow senses that the monk is enlightened. The question, which Mumon supposedly addresses in his commentary, is how. I have given a plausible analysis of the koan, which gives an answer to this question. But Mumon, on the other hand, does not see fit to explicitly answer the question at all. And this is precisely what makes him such an amusing writer. If Mumon had actually analyzed the koans, the Mumonkan would be a far less interesting book. As it is, Mumon has created what can only be called koans-within-koans. For his triplets of koans, commentaries and poems form beautiful koans in themselves.
Instead of presenting an analysis, Mumon simply remarks that "whoever answers this knows that Joshu's tongue has no bones so he may use it freely." What does this statement mean? Like any good poetry, it has multiple layers of meaning. My view of the subtext is as follows:
JOSHU (a few days later): Now I will ask you the same question again, and see if you have learned anything. "What is, is what?"
MONK: Yes, I understand why you rejected my answer before. Physical reality is just as illusory as language. Everything is just a pattern floating in nothingness. But you, too, are just a pattern floating in nothingness. Your question itself is no more real than my answer. So my answer still stands. I will raise my fist again.
JOSHU: Yes, I see that you understand. I accept your answer. Your first raised fist was well given; and it was also well taken, since by rejecting it I transmitted to you my understanding. I accepted it by killing it, by rejecting it. But then I saved it from death, by accepting it the second time. Everything is as it should be -- obvious andimpossible. "Well given, well taken, well killed, well saved."
The first time the monk raises his fist, Joshu does not accept that the monk is enlightened. But the second time the monk raises his fist, Joshu somehow senses that the monk is enlightened. The question, which Mumon supposedly addresses in his commentary, is how. I have given a plausible analysis of the koan, which gives an answer to this question. But Mumon, on the other hand, does not see fit to explicitly answer the question at all. And this is precisely what makes him such an amusing writer. If Mumon had actually analyzed the koans, the Mumonkan would be a far less interesting book. As it is, Mumon has created what can only be called koans-within-koans. For his triplets of koans, commentaries and poems form beautiful koans in themselves.
Instead of presenting an analysis, Mumon simply remarks that "whoever answers this knows that Joshu's tongue has no bones so he may use it freely." What does this statement mean? Like any good poetry, it has many meanings. But one of the more prominent implications is simply that Joshu replied at random. He had no reason at all for approving the second fist and not the first. The closest Mumon comes to analyzing the koan is making a statement that the actual story of the koan is irrelevant to its analysis.
But on the other hand, what about my analysis of the koan? Does it not lead us to the same conclusion? After all, although it is possible that the thoughts of the monk and Joshu were as I guessed, it is also quite possible that they were totally different. One can read almost anything into their simple exchange of words and gestures. By analyzing, one is creating something that was not originally there. The process of reading and thinking about the koan is a lesson in the mental creation of reality. And the crux of this lesson is the idea that the actual story of the koan is irrelevant to its analysis. Whoever is doing the analyzing will read his own predilections into it -- just as I read into it a dialogue about language and realtiy.
The point is, of course, that there is no point; that this whole discussion is absurd and meaningless. Joshu's response had no reason, and the whole koan has no reason except to communicate that the enlightened mind does things with no reason. Which is a contradiction, of course, since Mumon, presumably an enlightened mind, would not have published the koan at all if he had had no reason for doing so.
By not analyzing the koans, by responding to their nonsense with nonsense of his own, Mumon is insulting the koans themselves. He is laughing at the koans' pretended wisdom. This is even more apparent in the following excerpt:
LEARNING IS NOT THE PATH
Nansen said: "Mind is not Buddha. Learning is not the path."
Nansen was getting old and forgot to be ashamed. Hespoke out with bad breath and exposed the scandal of his own home. However, there are few who appreciate his kindness.
When the sky is clear the sun appears
When the earth is parched rain will fall
He opened his heart fully and spoke out
But it was useless to talk to pigs and fish
Mumon is ridiculing Nansen, and at the same time praising him for being so ridiculous. He is saying, in an amusingly colorful way, "Nansen is wrong, and Nansen is right." Thus he is upping the ante on Nansen -- he is saying "I'll take your contradiction, and raise it one more."
Mumon's poem here is somewhat humorous in tone, but it also makes a serious point about language. Speaking your heart to people is just like speaking ordinary sentences to pigs and fish. The true insights of your heart cannot be expressed in language; language just channels everything into the constraints of the consensus world.
In general, in his commentaries, Mumon is using language to point out that the koans, being linguistic constructions, are absurd and misleading. This is particularly poignant when, as in "Joshu Examines a Monk in Meditation," the ostensible content of the koan is the relation between language and meaning.
Let us close our discussion of Mumon and Zen with the following ancient Zen parable (author unknown):
Zen is like a man hanging in a tree by his teeth over a precipice. His hands grasp no branch, his feet rest on no limb, and under the tree another person asks him: "Why did Bodhidharma come to China from India?" If the man in the tree does not answer, he fails; and if he does answer, he falls and loses his life. Now what shall he do?
I know what I would do in that situation. The same thing you would do: fail the damn test! And I have no doubt that ninety nine out of a hundred Zen masters (at least) would do the same. Enlightened or not, they are full of Chinese practicality; they are not going to commit suicide without a good reason.
One point of the parable is that Zen presents the mind with an irresolvable contradiction. It asks you to think the thought "This cannot be thought." But of course, the moment one thinks this thought, one negates it, and it slips away. Then one can bring it back again, but the moment it gets there, it is gone.
But another point of the parable -- the more interesting point, perhaps -- is that the whole contradictory situation poses no problem for the Zen master. The master would simply fail the test and save his life without a moment's thought. He would not care about the test, because he would be confident of his own enlightenment. In other words, the Zen master knows how to act as though the world is real, even though at bottom he does not believe that it is. He understands the nature of "semi-reality," of virtual being; he understands that, even though the wall of his house is not really there in any absolute sense, he still isunable to walk through it. He is capable of constantly being aware of the dubious reality of his surroundings, and yet still dealing with them in a rational, indeed clever manner.
To put it another way, the Zen master understands that the question of the reality of the world is an irresolvable contradiction, just like the problem of thinking "this cannot be thought." But he still treats the information around him, the pattern which makes up his everyday world, as though it is in some tentative sense there. Because, after all, it is there! Zen is a triumph of practical sense over logical sense. In its barest, non-religious essence, Zen is just an Eastern form of pragmatism. Only the emphasis is different -- the American pragmatist philosophers never considered devoting their lives to thoroughly seeing the world as floating pattern.
The Contradiction at the Heart of Wisdom
There is a deep contradiction at the heart of all wisdom traditions -- a contradiction which is, perhaps, the heart of wisdom itself. This paradox is highlighted by the comparison of Hindu and Buddhist philosophy with Zen. Vedanta and Yoga, and classical Buddhism, are full of intricate theories about all and sundry. Zen, on the other hand, eschews such complexity. It collapses the hierarchy of being into two levels, samsara and nirvana, but then also collapses samsara and nirvana into one. It almost dispenses with doctrine altogether, replacing it with nonsense (koans), or blows with a stick. A good Zen answer to "What is the nature of the higher Self?" would be a swift rap on the head. Words do not suffice. In the end actions do not suffice either, but at least they are no worse.
As emphasized above, I don't think the ultimate states of mind sought by the different wisdom traditions are all that terribly different. The difference of opinion between Zen and these other schools has to do, not with the nature of ultimate enlightenment, but rather with the value of complex explanations of mind and reality. Are intricate spiritual theories -- the hierarchy of being, Buddhist psychology, etc. -- useful steps on the way to enlightenment? Or are they just distractions?
Zen judges that the intricate theories of classical Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, etc., are basically distractions. But yet, Zen still maintains certain rituals of its own. It is not a complete non-religion, despite its doctrine of non-doctrine. It still tells you to meditate, to sit in a certain posture, etc. -- specific instructions which, from the enlightened point of view, would have to be seen as arbitrary. The whole doctrine of Zen, minimal as it is, is just a habit-pattern, a particular cultural form, an element of samsara. The culturally patterned nature of Zen practice becomes particularly clear when Zen is transplanted out of the Orient, say to modern America. The formality of Zen ritual sits very oddly with contemporary American life, and the modern American Zen Buddhist is bound to ask: "Why is it necessary to imitate these ancient Orientals in order to attain enlightenment? Isn't enlightenment equally accessible to everyone?"
In this sense, Zen practice is itself a fine koan. The koan is, in words: "Why should I practice in this specific way when all forms of behavior are equally meaningless, and are equally valuable manifestations of the ultimate Void." In the same way, though less obviously and elegantly, all wisdom traditions are koans. They teach you to practice specific behaviors in order to reach a state of consciousness from the point of view of which no behavior is fundamentally better than any other.
This contradiction is just one of a family of wisdom paradoxes. Consider, for example, the question of compassion. Why is it important to be kind, compassionate, loving -- when nothing really exists, when living humans and dead humans and trees and particles are just illusory manifestations of atman, or Void? It would seem to be an empirical fact that, without a general attitude of compassion, exalted states of mind are impossible to attain. But what does the ultimate Void at the core of it all, with which one seeks identity, care for "empirical facts," or any facts at all? This dilemma, for the properly constituted mind, can serve as another koan: "Why should I care for others when they do not exist?" This is a dangerous koan, in the sense that many psychopaths have considered it and not found a solution. However, the person who has avoided this paradox cannot be truly, completely compassionate. The deepest compassion can only be found by overcoming the paradox inherent in it.
The contradiction at the heart of wisdom is summarized beautifully in a passage by the Zen master Huang Po. To quote this passage, however, I will first have to explain a little bit about dharma -- a Buddhist word and concept often confusing to Westerners.
Frequently, in the Buddhist literature, dharma means "doctrine," or specifically Buddhist doctrine. However, in psychological contexts, this is rarely the appropriate meaning. As Ramakrishna Rao has pointed out in his essay on "The Psychology of Transcendence," the meaning of dharma in Buddhist psychology is generally something like "mental state" or a "mental process." In a psychological context, dharma is interiorized behavior. Whereas scientific psychology focuses on the measurement and analysis of behaviors, the focus of Buddhist psychology is on the inside, on the dharma underlying the things a person does. Buddhist psychology is dharma dynamics. Digital Dharma is Digital Being, Digital Truth, Digital Mind.
The connection between these two meanings of dharma goes back to the root meaning of the word, which is "phenomenon." If phenomena are dharma, then naturally mental phenomena are dharma. On the other hand, the central teaching of Buddhism is the theory of dependent origination which, as presented above, relates a circle of causation between craving, attachment, ignorance, and so forth. Dependent origination is often rephrased as the statement that all phenomena are connected by causation. Thus the doctrine of dependent origination is a doctrine of phenomena, and it is naturally absorbed into the word dharma. Since allBuddhist teachings ultimately come out of the theory of dependent origination, they are dharma too.
So, with dharma under our belts, let us return to the contradiction at the heart of wisdom. The multiple meanings of dharma are utilized to spectacular effect in the following passage, from The Zen Teachings of Huang Po:
THE DHARMA OF THE DHARMA IS THAT THERE ARE NO DHARMAS, YET THAT THIS DHARMA OF NO-DHARMA IS IN ITSELF A DHARMA; AND NOW THAT THE NO-DHARMA DHARMA HAS BEEN TRANSMITTED, HOW CAN THE DHARMA OF THE DHARMA BE A DHARMA? Whoever understands the meaning of this deserves to be called a monk, one skilled at 'Dharma-practice.'
A friendlier translation, separating the two meanings of the word dharma, is
THE DOCTRINE OF THE DHARMA IS THAT THERE ARE NO DHARMAS, YET THAT THIS DOCTRINE OF NO-DHARMA IS IN ITSELF A DHARMA; AND NOW THAT THE NO-DHARMA DOCTRINE HAS BEEN TRANSMITTED, HOW CAN THE DOCTRINE OF THE DHARMA BE A DHARMA?
However, this loses the spirit of the original, and according to translator John Blofeld, a word-for-word transliteration from the original Chinese would be more like
Dharma original Dharma not Dharma, not Dharma Dharma also Dharma, now transmit not Dharma Dharma, Dharma Dharma how can be Dharma
Huang Po's passage presents the fundamental paradox of Zen in an astoundingly elegant way. A detailed explanation may be useful.
First, "The dharma of the dharma is that there are no dharmas." This means: the essential phenomenon pointed out by Zen is that there are no phenomena, that the world is insubstantial.
But then, "But yet that this dharma of no-dharma is in itself a dharma." This means that, even though it teaches you that all phenomena are insubstantial, Zen still wants you, the student, to take Zen seriously. It wants you to understand Zen as a real phenomenon, at least to a sufficient extent that you will spend your time doing zazen instead of watching TV.
And, "now that the no-dharma dharma has been transmitted, how can the dharma of the dharma be a dharma." This means: but once one has accepted that Zen is a real phenomenon, and followed the path of Zen, one will reach a state where one sees that in fact the Zen doctrine really is insubstantial. How can the dharma of the dharma be a dharma -- how can the Zen teachings be substantial -- once one has realized the no-dharma dharma, i.e., realized the Zen teaching that there are no real phenomena?
Zen, in this passage, is seen to be a paradox on the order of Epiminides' paradox:
or, more completely, something like
This is the basic paradox which the Zen masters are trying to drive home by striking their disciples with sticks, and baffling their disciples' minds with unsolvable koans.
The intriguing thing is that the paradoxical nature of Zen doctrine reflects the paradoxical nature of the universe. Enlightenment itself is a paradoxical state of mind. In Buddhist psychology terms, it involves disrupting the stream of consciousness without disrupting it; making concepts coherent without making them coherent. Or, put differently, it is a realization that everything is everything else, but yet everything is also distinct. As the old story, mentioned in Chapter 2, says, to the beginning student of Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains. To the intermediate student, men are mountains and mountains are men -- interpenetration is understood. And to the master, men are men and mountains are mountains again. Interpenetration is seen to coexist with distinctness. To become enlightened is to open the hand of thought, put aside one's conceptual presuppositions and thought-patterns, and accept the fundamentally paradoxical nature of the universe.
Accepting the paradox of the Zen religion is thus awfully similar to accepting the paradoxical nature of the world. Fully understanding the Zen method for obtaining enlightnment is the same as becoming enlightened. This is why questions about the rightness of the Zen way are answered with nonsense, or with blows. "Why is Zen is the way it is? Because enlightenment is the way it is, which you don't understand, because you're not enlightened."
We thus see that Zen, unlike any other wisdom tradition I have ever encountered, takes the fundamental contradiction of wisdom by the horns. This contradiction is not avoided, but is placed at the very center. Wisdom is to be achieved by mastering the contradictions of wisdom itself.
Before we discuss this puzzling passage in detail, some background is probably in order. Historically, the religion called Zen is a synthesis of Buddhism with Taoism. It teaches that by systematic meditation one can reach an "enlightened" state of mind -- a condition of absolute timeless perfection which no verbal or otherwise symbolic description can even begin to describe. The enlightened mind realizes in the most visceral possible way that nothing has any substance.
But the paradoxical aspect is that the enlightened man, after he has reached this cosmic state, doesn't float off intosome magic wonderland in the sky -- he just continues his ordinary life. Thus the enlightened mind manifests a synthesis of objectivism and subjectivism. He completely "believes" in the unreality of everything, and yet he nonetheless acts as though everything were real....
Conclusion -- The Perennial Theory of Mind
So what is, finally, the view of mind implicit in the Perennial Philosophy? What is the Perennial Theory of Mind?
It is a view of mind as something to be mastered, to be overcome. It is a view of mind as something which creates false meanings, by reifying things, by binding together things that do not fundamentally belong together. These errors of reification are perpetrated through inattentiveness. If we are attentive enough to what we are doing -- in the world outside us, and inside our minds -- then we will come to intuitively realize the illusory nature of mental activity. Thus, by turning the mind on itself in a proper way, the mind can be caused to deconstruct itself, to bring itself out from under its own influence. This is a very tricky idea. It is only the mind which, by appropriate use of self-attention, can set itself free from itself!
An emphasis is placed on the ability of mind to create meanings, and to create an illusory, time-and-space-bound self, a collection of habit-patterns and beliefs, a remembered history, which poses as something solid and real. By untying the samyojama, the mental knots, by opening the hand of thought, one puts a halt to this obstructiveness on the part of mind.
Consciousness, awareness, is understood as something that flows dynamically. Ordinary states of consciousness are based on the continual obstruction of this flow. Enlightened states of consciousness are based on thinking and perceiving in ways that do not obstruct the flow.
These basic ideas are expressed differently in different wisdom traditions. In Vedanta, for example, the ordinary person's mind is viewed as something which impedes the flow up and down the hierarchy of being. It creates instead a flow from the physical level up to the mental (manomaya) level, and back down again, leaving the higher levels out of the picture almost entirely. In the enlightened person, however, the mind is not obstructive in this way. It ties and unties knots only insofar as the higher levels of being demand it. Its knot-tying process is under the control of the higher awareness, instead of acting on its own momentum, and blurring out the effects of the higher levels of being.
In Zen, one has a similar understanding, though framed in different language. The mind is viewed as something that creates a barrier between form and nothingness, between samsara and nirvana. By eliminating mental knots one sees that everything is nothing, that the material world and the ultimate world of interdependence and nonexistence are the same thing.
In the end, there is no way to determine exactly which psychological conclusions are part of the culture-independent Perennial Philosophy, and which parts come only from particularwisdom traditions. The Perennial Philosophy is not so strictly defined as all that. Fortunately, however, we do need need this kind of precision here. All we need is a good intuitive sense for the spiritual view of the mind.
MIND AND SPIRITUAL REALITY IN WESTERN PHILOSOPHY
We have discussed Eastern philosophy in some detail. But what about Western philosophy, and its implications for the mind?
It was Western philosophy which helped classical Western science to rise to ascendance. So one might be forgiven for thinking that European philosophers were exclusively objectivist and rationalist in focus. In fact, however, this is not the case. Virtually every major idea found in Eastern thought can also be found in Western thought, albeit expressed in very different language. In the West as in the East, extraordinary individuals looked deep into their minds, and pulled out remarkable spiritual/philosophical insights.
Eastern philosophy is more closely tied with practical spiritual techniques -- a quality which, as well as being useful, is an immense aid for comprehension. On the other hand, for those of us raised in Western cultures, there is a great deal of value in seeing spiritual insights as part of our own culture, rather than as exotic products of mysterious, far-off lands. After all, the core of the Perennial Philosophy lies in personal inner experience, something which, while in a sense transcending worldly distinctions, is also strongly conditioned by culture and circumstance.
In this brief section I cannot possibly do justice to the richness of Western philosophy as it impinges on questions of mind and spirit. I am intentionally leaving out many of my own favorite philosophers. The point here is not to summarize Western thought, but merely to give a few important examples, illustrating how spiritual ideas have manifested themselves in a philosophical tradition dominated by scientific thought.
A particular stress will be laid on the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche. More than any other Western philosopher, Nietzsche understood the insights of Eastern wisdom traditions. He admired certain aspects of them, and reviled others. His doctrine of the Superman is, I think, the only genuine Western challenge to the Eastern ideal of the "enlightened man."
Plato and His Successors
Let us begin at the beginning, with the philosophy of the ancient Greeks. The discipline we know as "philosophy" has its roots in the Greek tradition of "sophistry," or argument for its own sake. The Sophists, experts in logical argumentation, served ancient Greek society as mediators, lawyers and educators; they were rarely poor and generally quite well respected. Public debates on philosophical matters actually attracted crowds, and Sophists prided themselves on the ability to effectively arguefor either side of any given issue. Is the world finite? Yes, because.... No, because.... Is there such a thing as absolute morality? Yes, because.... No, because.... Shiftiness and greed were combined with the conceptual exuberance of speculative philosophy.
Paradoxes were particularly appreciated -- for example, there was the case of the Sophist student whose agreement with his teacher stated that he would pay his teacher only if he won his first court case. Of course, the student refused to pay, and the teacher took him to court. The judge had quite a quandary on his hands: "Now," he reasoned, "if I decide in favor of the student, then he has won his first case, and therefore he has to pay. But, on the other hand, if I decide in favor of the teacher, then the student has lost his first case, and therefore he should not have to pay." The judge, unable to solve the logical paradox, just bit the bullet and make an irrational decision; he concluded that the student should not have to pay....
The world-view of the Sophists has survived only in fragmented form. Very few entire essays remain, and even these are not as striking as the isolated aphorisms. "Of all things," wrote Protagoras, "the measure is man. Of the things that are, that they are; of the things that are not, that they are not." Or Heraclitus: "You can never step into the same river twice." The world is not absolute, because, after all, one can argue equally well for its relativity or its absoluteness. The river you step into is not a fixed, absolute object but a constantly shifting network of sense impressions, which you actively classify as a "river," thus creating the concrete entity that is the river.
And then came Plato, who expressed his disdain for the Sophists' world of aristocratic nihilism and argumentation-for-money, while at the same time adopting many of its most notable characteristics. Following the Sophists, Plato taught that the everyday world we see is not a real one. It is, as Protagoras would have it, measured and created by man. But, unlike the Sophists, Plato taught that there is another world behind this one -- a truer world, to which this world of shifting illusions is only a rough approximation. We see rivers, all different sorts of rivers, and every river we see is a little different, and every time we blink our eyes while looking at a river, the river we see when we open our eyes is not really the same one we were gazing on a moment before. This is all very well ... but then there is something different, there is the Idea of the river. This is something fixed and absolute, something which lives in a different world than ours, in the realm of Ideas.
This is, of course, the meaning of Plato's famous parable of the cave. So long as we are confined to the perception of mere approximations, to particular phenomena, we are like men who sit in a dark cave, facing away from the opening, tied so tightly that they cannot turn their heads to see out, but can only see the shadows of real things which pass behind them -- even of themselves and one another, they can see only shadows. The shadows, in this metaphor, would form a self-contained network of patterns, sufficient for the prisoners to build a subjective, world based on the fluctuations and interactions of shadowsalone.
But suppose someone escaped this realm of illusion for a moment -- turned their head just barely far enough to see what was really going on. Then the others would not believe him! The others would ridicule and torment him, and perhaps he would even lose some of his ability to interpret the world of shadows, thus partly justifying their ridicule. This is exactly the case of the philosopher, who comes a little closer than the ordinary man to the abstract realm of Ideas, to the "real" world underlying our illusory reality of shadow-play.
Obviously the world outside the cave, the true world of Ideas, is ultimate reality. It is a sort of synthesis of anandamaya and vignanamaya. The whole, perfect intuitions that we have associated with vignanamaya are Plato's abstract Ideas. They are perfect conceptual forms, flawless and different from their mental and conceptual (manomaya) representations. The subtle regularities amongst these forms are anandamaya -- these regularities guide the supremely insightful philosopher, but are not detectable by anyone who has not achieved a full and frequent interaction with the realm of Ideas.
Plato does not give a specific spiritual path toward the world of abstract Ideas, but he does something very similar, in the Republic. He describes an ideal city, with philosophers at the head. This city is designed in such a way that the residents will have an optimum chance of communing with the higher levels of being. In short, it is a kind of large-scale, ancient Greek ashram. The philosophers, leaders of the city, are supposed to lead ascetic lives, refraining from indulgence in pleasures of the flesh, devoting themselves to study, reflection and contemplation.
In the end, when one subtracts out cultural ideosyncracies, Plato's "way of the philosopher" is not very different from the Vedantic path to enlightenment, or from Jnana yoga. It is a noetic, constructivist, anabolic, extraverted wisdom tradition. And Vedanta's stringent list of requirements for the prospective student is quite similar to Plato's list of requirements for the budding philosopher-administrator. Neither Plato nor Vedanta believed the higher realm to be fit for the average human mind.
In later centuries, neo-Platonist philosophy came even closer to Vedantic thought. Plotinus, writing in the third century, arranged the universe in an hierarchical order as follows:
the One, an analogue of the Vedantic higher Self
the nous or Intelligence, an advanced mental realm in which mind becomes one with its object
the souls, which are the multiplicity of living forms the sensible world
However, Plotinus did not originate this hierarchical view of the world himself; he obtained it from his master Ammonius, a shadowy character who did not write, but rather transmitted knowledge"directly," in the manner of a guru. Ammonius was one of a long line of Western visionaries tracing back to the Orphic and Pythagorean mystery schools of ancient Greece.
Neo-Platonism had a strong influence on the subsequent intellectual development of the West. For example, an echo of Plotinus's hierarchy may be found in the "Great Chain of Being" of Renaissance philosophy. At the top of the Great Chain is God, followed by the celestial beings (angels, etc.), then humans and animals, then plants and finally inanimate matter. Man is placed between the divine and the mundane. Angels and other celestial beings are concretizations of the subtle realm, anandamaya: they are not quite real but not quite imaginary, flittering in and out of existence, never quite within human grasp.
From Kant to Schopenhauer
The theme of physical versus subtle reality has also played a central role in the Western philosophy of the past few centuries -- particularly in German philosophy. Immanuel Kant spoke of the realm of phenomena (the apparent world) versus the realm of noumena (the underlying world). Kant blamed space and time for blocking the underlying, subtle world from our view. Rather pessimistically, he gave no hope for ever penetrating the sheath of illusion to ultimate reality. We are stuck, he said, in a false universe, and there is nothing we can do about it, except for cherish the rare moments of insight that happen into our minds. The things we see in the world -- people, books, trees -- are just illusory constructions. There are real things, things-in-themselves, but we are not able to perceive people-in-themselves, books-in-themselves, trees-in-themselves, because the illusory categories of space and time are wired in our mind/brains. Kant's things-in-themselves are much like Plato's abstract Ideas, but whereas Plato's Ideas were accessible to the philosopher, Kant's noumena were hidden from everybody.
I have often wondered what would have happened to Kant's philosophy if, once during his life, he had been given a dose of hallucinogenic mushrooms. Then he would have directly perceived the possibility of going beyond the world of three-dimensional space and linear time. Perhaps he would have opened himself up to the fact that, in other cultures, many individuals had devoted their lives to the direct and constant experience of the noumenal world. But instead, he was completely shut off to this possibility. His thought was dominated by Newtonian physics to an almost absurd degree. He took Newton's ideas of Absolute Space and Absolute Time as philosophical truths rather than merely as useful scientific assumptions.
Arthur Schopenhauer, another German, took Kant's inaccessible noumenal world, and moved it back in the direction of Eastern mysticism. In a move reminiscent of Yogic philosophy, he equated noumena with will. By willing a thing, he declared,we enter into that thing, we are absorbed into the essence of that thing, at very least for a moment. When you focus on your breath, you are experiencing your breath-in-itself. When you attentively move your arm, you are experiencing your arm-in-itself. The body is experienced as a direct reality.
Schopenhauer seems to have been a particularly disagreeable person -- a far cry from the inoffensive Immanuel Kant, whose only interesting characteristic was a lack of any interesting characteristics (Kant followed the same schedule virtually every day of his adult life, so regularly that the street which he walked down every afternoon is now called "Philosophers' Walk"). He possessed an admirable independent-mindedness, but he was terribly intolerant of his fellow human beings, particularly where noise was concerned. He wrote an essay on the difficulty of being a thinking man in a city plagued by whip-cracking coachmen. Once he became so incensed at a woman gossiping outside his door that he wound up pushing her down the stairs ... but luckily he was independently wealthy, and was able to abide by the court's order that he support her for the rest of her life.
Schopenhauer took Kant's inaccessible thing-in-itself, and sneakily, cunningly, ingeniously equated it with " the Will". By willing a thing, he declared, we enter into that thing, we are absorbed into the essence of that thing, at very least for a moment. We experience our selves, our own bodies, in a very direct way, a very different way from the way we experience objects in the external world. When you will your arm to move, you are not perceiving the arm in the same shallow way that you do when you merely touch it, or look at it -- you are experiencing the arm in itself.
Self-conscious willing is not a complete escape from the web of illusion. It provides a direct awareness of the successive temporal manifestations of our being, and not of our being in itself, which resides outside time. It is outside space, but it is still governed by the Kantian category of time. In the end, then, all that Schopenhauer grants us is a partial escape, an secret passageway to a lesser degree of illusion.
From this equation of will and ultimate reality, you might reasonably conclude that only your own body has any degree of reality. After all, you can't will the ceiling over your head to do anything, so how do you know it has any noumenal reality? But Schopenhauer pushed this objection aside: every object, he proclaimed, has at least a small element of Will, in which resides its true reality. We do not see this Will, what we see are approximations or representation; but the Will is there nonetheless. Thus the title of his major work, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, which is alternately translated from the German as The World as Will and Idea or The World as Will and Representation.
Only the body can be easily and directly willed, thus it is only the body whose inner reality can be easily experienced. However, it is also possible to experience the subtle, inner reality of other things. This is what Schopenhauer calls the "way from within":
[A] way from within stands open to us to that real innernature of things to which we cannot penetrate from without. It is, so to speak, a subterranean passage, a secret alliance, which, as if by treachery, places us all at once in that fortress that could not be taken by attack from without.
The way from within is a kind of full-on, whole-mind contemplation. Schopenhauer is most elegant in describing how the way from within manifests itself in the experience of concentrating on an object, particularly a work of art:
We [must] lose ourselves entirely in this object .. forget our individuality, our will, and continue to exist only as pure subject, as clear mirror of the object, so that it is as though the object alone existed without anyone to perceive it, and thus we are no longer able to separate the perceiver from the perception, but the two have become one, since the entire consciousness is filled and occupied by a single image of perception.
Aesthetic pleasure, according to this view, consists precisely of the recognition of pure Platonic Ideas. Becoming one with a circle drawn on a piece of paper, one is no longer seeing a messy circle drawn in ink, one is seeing a perfect, rounded circle, an Ideal circle. But certain works of art are much more likely to induce this charmed state than a scribbled circle. Great art is art which is particularly effective at inducing all-encompassing, mystic perception. Music, in the Schopenhauerian view, is the highest form of art, because it so easily mesmerizes us, allows us entrance; the patterns of music are closest to the ups and downs of the body's own will.
Of course, Schopenhauer's "way from within" is nothing but a standard stage in Eastern meditation regimes. It is meditation on an object, until one becomes completely absorbed in the object. This is not the highest stage of meditation, in which one is focussing on nothing whatsoever, or on Brahman, the formless higher self. But it is a very high stage.
Clearly, Schopenhauer -- unlike Kant -- had personal experience of the higher levels of being, via sustained concentration on objects, particularly art objects and pieces of music. His experiences found their way into his philosophy, leading to a broader and more robust point of view. Kant's philosophy is purely a philosophy of the everyday state of consciousness, while Schopenhauer's also deals with altered states of consciousness -- meditative and higher intuitive states.
In fact, the more one looks at Schopenhauer's philosophy, the more Buddhistic it seems. References to the Vedas abound in his writing. He particularly appreciated the notion of the "veil of Maya," the veil of illusion drawn over true reality; just as I do, he considered this concept quite similar to the "apparent world" of Kant and Plato. Less appealingly, in his vicious "Essay on Women" he speaks approvingly of the Indian law of Manu,under which "no woman is independent, but ... stands under the control of her husband, her brother or her son."
Like Buddha, Schopenhauer believed that all existence is suffering. He threw out the Christian struggle against sin and replaced it with a more rational and direct struggle against pain. He saw the way from within as the only possible escape from the sprawling, tedious unpleasantness of the everyday world. The biggest difference between Schopenhaurism and Buddhism is that it is aesthetic experience, rather than meditation in the lotus position, which Schopenhauer proposes to provide an escape route from the pain of life. But then, when one reads his description of the aesthetic experience, it becomes plain that this "biggest difference" is really not so big at all. What Schopenhauer got out of art, and music in particular, is precisely what the Buddhist sages got out of meditation: a total absorption in something beyond oneself, which causes the boundaries of individual existence to dissolve away. And it is precisely what Plato envisioned the philosopher to obtain from his own abstract contemplation. By drawing on Eastern thought, Schopenhauer tugged Kant's philosophy back towards its Greek beginnings, in which, as Nietzsche put it, "the real world [is] attainable to the wise, the pious, the virtuous man -- he dwells in it, he is it."
Unlike Buddha, however, Schopenhauer did not believe a complete escape to be possible. He was more optimistic than Kant in that he did see the possibility of contact with subtle realms. But he believed us to be fundamentally grounded in the physical world, the world of pain. The subtle realms were only a sort of spiritual vacation spot, a location to be visited in our higher moments.
The Nietzschean Challenge
Finally, before leaving Western philosophy, we must deal with the very deep and very pertinent thought of Friedrich Nietzsche. While Kant and Schopenhauer fit neatly into the history of the West, Nietzsche's philosophy is unusual in a number of ways. Nietzsche had experience of many altered states of consciousness, due to chronic pain, intense creative inspiration, gradual (apparently syphilis-induced) insanity, and plain old inner adventurousness. He made full use of all these experiences in his philosophical thought, and as a result, he saw every bit as deeply as the great Eastern mystics -- though he did not always see exactly the same things. Nietzsche's thought is, in my view, the only genuine challenge which Western philosophy has to offer to the wisdom of the East.
Nietzsche began his philosophical career as a Schopenhauerian, but quickly moved beyond Schopenhauer into a new and more exciting realm of ideas. He was more sophisticated than his predecessors in his view of Eastern philosophy. Quite correctly, he viewed Schopenhauer's philosophy as a sort of Westernized Buddhism; and he rejected Schopenhauer for the same reasons that he rejected Buddhism.
Nietzsche admired Buddhism for its empirical nature, for itssynthesis of theory and practice. He had no doubts regarding the existence of enlightenment -- of a serene state of consciousness devoid of both pain and passion. A great believer in the effects of food on the mind, he also understood that the Buddhist dietary and meditation regime could be effective in producing such a serene state of being. What he did not believe, however, was that such a state of consciousness was desirable.
Nietzsche understood that, once a person had attained this "enlightened" Buddha-like state of being, this state of being would seem desirable to them. And thus, they would try to seduce others to join them in their "enlightened" state. But to him, this proved nothing about the desirability of enlightenment.
Imagine a drug addict on a high, saying "Yeah, this experience is great! It's the best thing in the world! You've got to try it!" This was Nietzsche's view of the enlightened person. He saw himself as the non-addicted person, looking at the addict and saying "Well, I can see how good that feels -- but I have other goals in life, which wouldn't be satisfied by becoming all blissed-out like you. And no, I don't mean the trivial goals that you've dismissed: money and sensual or intellectual pleasures. I mean something else."
Nietzsche understood that "everything is suffering," in the sense that pain suffuses all experience. Every good experience contains the premonition of its painful end. Nothing is free from pain. "If you say Yes to one joy, O my friends, then you have said Yes to all woe as well!" On the other hand, he argued, if everything is pain, then everything is also pleasure. Every bad experience contains the premonition of its relief-infused, joyous end. He understood interdependence: "All things are entwined, all things are in love." He preached uncritical acceptance of all existence, good and bad aspects together.
Basically, Nietzsche felt that Buddhism was a cop-out: it observed the entwined nature of pleasure and pain, singled out the pain, and concluded that life was something to be avoided rather than accepted. Unfortunately, he was not familiar with those strains of Eastern thought that stress living a more fulfilled life within the world, rather than escaping from the world. Instead, he singled out the escapist nature of spiritual paths.
Like Schopenhauer, he saw artistic creativity as a road to deep insight. Regarding his experience while writing Thus Spake Zarathustra, he wrote:
Has anyone at the end of the eighteenth century a clear idea of what poets of strong ages have called inspiration? If not, I will describe it. -- If one has the slightest residue of superstition left in one's system, one could hardly resist altogether the idea that one is merely incarnation, merely mouthpiece, merely a medium of overpowering forces. The concept of revelation -- in the sense that suddenly, with indescribable certainty and subtlety, something becomes visible, audible, something that shakes one to the last depths and throws one down -- that merely describes the facts. One hears, one does not seek; one accepts, one does not ask who gives; like lightning, a thought flashes up, with necessity, withouthesitation regarding its form -- I never had any choice.
This is a description of vignanamaya: of higher intuition, in which forms come down to one from "on high," without conscious rational intervention.
From the examples of Plato, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, one sees that Western philosophers attained their knowledge of the higher levels of being largely through experiences of creative inspiration. They did not meditate or carry out specific spiritual practices, but they concentrated intensely on ideas, and experienced higher intuition. The experience of doing their creative work was, in large part, the ground for their creative work. What they were thinking and writing about was the reality revealed to them in the process of thinking and writing. Nietzsche represents this phenomenon carried to the ultimate degree.
Nietzsche agreed with Kant and Schopenhauer that the world we see is a constructed world; and, more so than his predecessors, he was closely in touch with the everyday meaning of this philosophical idea. Consider, for instance, the following passage:
Just as little as a reader today reads all of the individual words (let alone syllables) on a page -- rather he picks out about five words at random out of twenty and "guesses" at the meaning that probably belongs to these five words -- just as little do we see a tree exactly and completely with reference to leaves, twigs, color and form; it is so very much easier for us to simply improvise some approximation of a tree. Even in the midst of the strangest experiences we still do the same: we make up the major part of the experience and can scarcely be forced not to contemplate some event as its "inventor." All this means: basically and from time immemorial we are -- accustomed to lying. Or to put it more virtuously and hypocritically, in short, more pleasantly: one is much more of an artist than one knows.
The question Nietzsche is raising here is whether, when our perceptual systems construct a "fake" tree, they are constructing some approximation to a real tree ... or whether there are only "approximations" and no reality. Schopenhauer's representations were still representations of something -- of Ideas that, though generally inaccessible, were nonetheless absolutely real. Nietzsche, on the other hand -- like Peirce and James -- wished to throw out Plato's Ideas altogether, to keep only observable forms and patterns. But then what becomes of the Will, which Schopenhauer identified with ultimate reality, with Ideal essence? The Will, now called the will to power, is what animates each form in the world to exceed itself and become what it is not, to overcome other forms and incorporate them into itsown. Instead of being the essence of what each thing really is, the will becomes each thing's drive to expand itself. Thus, the focus is on dynamics, on change, on the constant competition between forms to dominate one another.
Those who are familiar with Hegelian philosophy will notice a connection here. Schopenhauer despised Hegel with a passion; when he was a young man lecturing at the same university as Hegel, he intentionally scheduled his first lectures at the same time as Hegel's. Naturally everyone went to see the famous philosopher, and Schopenhauer, his pride wounded, never lectured again. Nietzsche, on the other hand, despite his early affinity for Schopenhauer, never adopted the latter's attitude toward Hegel's thought. He considered Hegel's tangled prose a typical example of German muddle-headedness, and he had little respect for Hegel's pretense to a complete logical theory of the world. But he acknowledged a debt to Hegel's emphasis on becoming and change, rather than static structure. Hegel's philosophy was based on the movement from an entity and its opposite to a higher, stronger entity synthesizing the two; in a rough intuitive way, this foreshadows Nietzsche's concept of the will to power. The key difference is that, while Hegel saw the process of struggle and synthesis proceeding in an orderly, almost mathematical progression, from the simple to the complex, Nietzsche saw it as a free-for-all. The structure of the process of dialectical evolution, Nietzsche realized, is itself one of the things that must evolve.
In the end, Nietzsche rejected the noumenal world, the world of things-in-themselves. Instead, he proposed, there is no deeper world -- the world is only surfaces. This is parallel to the Zen Buddhist statement that nirvana (noumena) and samsara (phenomena) are the same thing. However, Nietzsche taught that the nature of the world -- the "surface" world -- had been consistently misunderstood by Western philosophers. The absolutely real world of Newton and Kant was an utter illusion. Instead, immediate reality was a non-objective, non-subjective universe, full of teeming relationship and competitive flux. A world of entities which are relations between each other, each one constantly acting to extend itself over the other, while blending in with its neighbors harmoniously. To quote from Nietzsche's notebooks:
The mechanistic world is imagined as only sight and touch imagine a world (as "moved") -- so as to be calculable -- thus causal unities are invented, "things" (atoms) whose effect remains constant (-- transference of the false concept of the subject to the concept of the atom)
The following are therefore phenomenal: the injection of the concept of number, the concept of the thing (the concept of the subject), the concept of activity (separation of cause from effect), the concept of motion (sight and touch): our eye and our psychology are still part of it.
If we eliminate these additions, no things remain but only dynamic quanta, in a relation of tension to all other dynamic quanta: their essence lies in their relation to allother quanta, in their "effect" upon the same. The will to power, not a being, not a becoming, but a pathos -- the most elemental fact from which a becoming and effecting first emerge --
This last paragraph is perhaps the purest, most elegant distillation of Nietzsche's final world-view. Like all great visionaries, he is struggling to put into words what is fundamentally inexpressible. That the world is nothing but relations among each other, constantly struggling to subsume each other -- this is so simple and so profound that there is almost no way to say it. Nietzsche's world of dynamic quanta is, in short, a very close relative of anandamaya -- the realm of ultimate causality, the realm of bliss.
Another of his attempts (less successful but more beautiful) to summarize his world-view in a single passage is as follows:
And do you know what "the world" is to me? Shall I show it to you in my mirror? This world: a monster of energy, without beginning, without end; a firm, iron magnitude of force that does not grow bigger or smaller, that does not expend itself but only transforms itself; as a whole, of unalterable size, a household without expenditures or losses, but likewise without increase or income; enclosed by "nothingness" as by a boundary; not something blurry or wasted, no something endlessly extended, but set in a definite space as a definite force, and not a space that might be "empty" here or there, but rather as force throughout, as a play of forces and waves of forces, at the same time one and many, increasing here and at the same time decreasing there; a sea of forces flowing and rushing together, eternally changing, eternally flooding back, with tremendous years of recurrence, with an ebb and a flood of its forms; out of the simplest forms striving toward the most complex, out of the stillest, most rigid, coldest forms toward the hottest, most turbulent, most self-contradictory, and then returning home again to the simple out of this abundance, out of the play of contradictions back to the joy of concord, still affirming itself in this uniformity of its courses and its years, blessing itself as that which must return eternally, as a becoming that knows no satiety, no disgust, no weariness: this, my Dionysian world of the eternally self-creating, the eternally self-destroying, this mystery world of the twofold voluptuous delight, my "beyond good and evil" without goal, unless the joy of the circle is itself a goal; without will, unles a ring feels good will toward itself -- do you want a name for this world? A solution for all its riddles? A light for you, too, you best-concealed, strongest, most intrepid, most midnightly men? -- This world is the will to power -- and nothing besides! And you yourselves are also this will to power -- and nothing besides!
Nietzsche was well aware of his unique role in the history of Western philosophy -- in particular, in the history of the Western view of reality. His book The Twilight of the Idols contains a brief, cryptic and amusing passage on this topic called "How the Real World at last Became a Myth," which is well worth quoting in its entirety:
How the Real World at last Became a Myth
HISTORY OF AN ERROR
The real world, attainable to the wise, the pious, the virtuous man -- he dwells in it, he is it. (Oldest form of the diea, relatively sensible, simple, convincing. Transcription of the proposition 'I, Plato, am the truth')
The real world, unattainable for the moment, but promised to the wise, the pious, the virtuous man ('to the sinner who repents'). (Progress of the idea: it grows more refined, more enticing, more incomprehensible -- it becomes a woman, it becomes Christian...)
The real world, unattainable, undemonstrable, cannot be promised, but even when merely thought of a consolation, a duty, an imperative. (Fundamentally the same old sun, but shining through mist and skepticism; the idea grown sublime, place, northerly, Konigsbergian.)
The real world -- unattainable? Unattained, at any rate. And if unattained also unknown. Consequently also no consolation, no redemption, no duty: how could we have a duty toward something unknown? (The grey of dawn. First yawnings of reason. Cockcrow of positivism.)
The 'real world' -- an idea no longer of any use, not
even a duty any longer, an idea grown useless, superfluous,
consequently a refuted idea: let us abolish it!
(Broad daylight; breakfast; return of cheerfulness and bon sens; Plato blushes for shame; all free spirits run riot.)
We have abolished the real world: what world is left? the apparent world perhaps? ... But no! with the real world we have also abolished the apparent world! (Mid-day; moment of the shortest shadow; end of the longest error; zenith of mankind; INCIPIT ZARATHUSTRA)
To my mind, this strange but remarkable passage records one of the most underappreciated trains of thought in Western history. We have reviewed some of the history to which it refers. Stage 1 is Plato's simple parable of the Cave -- we all live in a world of illusion, but there is a partial escape route available to the gifted and devoted. It is also the general perspective of mystical religions: the sage, the seer, thevisionary can see through the veil of Maya to the underlying substrate of the world. Stage 2 is ordinary, non-mystical Christianity; it is Platonism grown academic and dusty. At this stage, the real world is not something which the medicine man or the monk can directly contact, but at least it is there for us after we die; it is at least an abstract promise. Stage 3, then, is Plato turned into Kant (Konigsberg, to which Nietzsche refers here, was Kant's native city): the promise of reality after death is rescinded ... the noumena are there, in some strange sense, but there is no hope of ever finding them! Stages 4 and 5 are the modern age -- the advent of atheism and nihilism, the rejection of absolutes explored so thoroughly by Dostoevsky.
And what of Stage 6? This is the mysterious part, the tantalizing part -- the point at which Nietzsche's thought justifies the subtitle which he gave to his book Beyond Good and Evil: "Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future." For Nietzsche's Stage 6 represents something which today's "post-modernist" thinkers are only beginning to inarticulately conceive of: a spot of firm but alien ground on the other side of the raging sea of cynical nihilism.
This is the most direct interpretation of Nietzsche's six stages: as an abstraction of Western philosophical history. But there is also a somewhat different interpretation. One may look at the six stages as a record of Nietzsche's personal, inner quest. In a surprisingly strong sense, Nietzsche's own intellectual evolution recapitulated the history of philosophy. Nietzsche himself entered adulthood as a student of theology; then he became a disciple of Schopenhauer and Wagner, believing that a "truer world" would be revealed to him by aesthetic and philosophical contemplation. This belief oozes out of every page of his first book, The Birth of Tragedy. But step by step he lost faith in these ideas, eventually sinking into the well-known "pit" of nihilistic despair "When you look long into an abyss," he wrote, "the abyss looks also into you). There is no reality, he affirmed, only the world of shifting shadows, fluctuating phenomenal forms. He published numerous books of aphorisms with the general theme that all human actions reduce to a few base impulses: greed, lust, the desire for power,....
The aphoristic form fit in well with Nietzsche's lifestyle: after ten years of university lecturing, he became quite ill, and for the rest of his life he moved from city to city in search of a climate that would aid his recovery. He was rarely healthy for a long enough period to write an extended book or essay; brief aphorisms were much easier. But the aphoristic form is also ideally suited for a nihilistic world-view: it does not require one to adopt an overall structure, to elevate one idea above all others as an organizing principle. When, having nearly destroyed himself in the abyss, Nietzsche had his vision, he abandoned the aphorism for the dithyramb, the extended prose poem of Zarathustra.
"Zarathustra" -- the Greek variant of "Zoroaster." Zoroaster, the ancient Persian, had introduced to the world the sharp distinction between good and evil ... which was the root of the distinction between the real world and the apparent world. Zarathustra was anti-Zoroaster; the prophet who would wipe these distinctions away. His adventures have an hallucinatory tonethat is unique in Western philosophy; he wrangles with Truth in the form of a woman ("Are you visiting women?" an old lady reminds him. "Then do not forget your whip!"), and preaches his creative, dramatic ideas to hunchbacks, donkeys, frogs and sorcerers. Unlike all previous prophets, Zarathustra told his followers not to follow; he told them to get lost, and go figure things out for themselves:
I came to my truth by diverse paths and in diverse ways: it was not upon a single ladder that I climbed to the height where my eyes survey the distances.
And I have asked the way only unwillingly -- that has always offended my taste! I have rather questioned and attempted the ways themselves.
All my progress has been an attempting and a questioning -- and truly, one has to learn how to answer such questioning! That however -- is to my taste:
not good taste, not bad taste, but my taste, which I no longer conceal and of which I am no longer ashamed.
'This -- is my way: where is yours?' Thus I answered those who asked me 'the way.' For the way -- does not exist!
Thus spoke Zarathustra.
"INCIPIT ZARATHUSTRA," wrote Nietzsche, in his description of Stage 6 of the history of reality. "With the real world, we have also abolished the apparent world!" The meaning of this is plain and simple, if one considers it as the report of a personal experience. Once one gets rid of the idea of a separate, absolute reality, one no longer sees the world around one in the same way. The "apparent world" which Plato, Kant, Schopenhauer and the rest contrast with the real world -- is at bottom an artifact, sustained only by the illusion of the real world. One opposite cannot exist without the other. This brief declaration announces that, with the vision of Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche has finally thrown off the habit of perceiving the world as if there were another, deeper reality underlying it; and that in doing so, his perception of the apparent world has been changed. He now sees the apparent world as reported in the longer passage quoted above -- as an oceanic mass of simple and complex forms ceaselessly struggling and dancing with each other in a tremendous chaotic symphony of power.
Like Kant, Nietzsche believed the Absolute Space and Time of Newtonian physics to be illusory. And, like Schopenhauer, he believed that the properly mature mind could learn to see beyond this illusion, at least now and then. But the difference lay in what he saw to lie beyond this illusion: not the objective "in-itself" of things, but a non-objective, non-subjective universe of relationship and competitive flux. A world of entities which are relations between each other, each one constantly acting to extend itself over the other, in accordance with the will to power which is its essence.
This is nothing more or less than the hyperreal vision of the universe. Each "thing" is known only by its effect on otherthings; by the observable regularities which it gives rise to. But this web of interrelationships is alive, it is constantly moving, each thing shifting into the others; and the way Nietzsche chose to express this hyperreal dynamic was in terms of his principle of the "will to power," in terms of the urge for each relationship to extend over the others.
Nietzsche, through his philosophical meditations, arrived at a world-view beyond the concepts of real and apparent reality, an hypperreal world-view. And through his states of mystical inspiration, this world-view became more than a philosophy for him -- it became a way of seeing, a way of being. That he went insane at about the same time may or may not have been a coincidence -- but even if it was not a coincidence, even if his insights were partly caused by his changing brain chemistry, this does not discredit the insights which he achieved. Just as salt is flavorful in small amounts but poisonous in large ones, it is possible for a change in brain chemistry to be useful at first, then destructive as it grows more severe.
Finally, what did Nietzsche propose as a method for coming into closer contact with the world as it is, for shedding the illusions of reality and attaining hyperreal perspective? If Schopenhauer's method was Buddhistic, Nietzsche's was more yogic in flavor, though certainly lacking the dogmatic rigor and extremism of most yogic traditions. Nietzsche's method for coming to see the world as "dynamic quanta" was quite simply, the cultivation of inner control.
Nietzsche's doctrine of the "will to power" has been misunderstood by almost everyone, most notably Adolf Hitler. In fact it was never intended to refer to the quest for power over others. Applied to human nature, it was intended primarily to mean the quest for power over oneself. By achieving power over one's own thoughts and feeling, Nietzsche said, one could free oneself from the illusions of time, space, number, personal history and emotions, and one could see the world as it truly was. Once one had truly done this, one would no longer be human, one would be an ubermensch, a Superman. Nietzsche did not claim to be a Superman himself, or even a reasonable approximation thereof. He claimed only to have had flashes, for a few minutes, hours or days at a time, of this exalted way of being. His highest moments were the weeks of inspired bliss that he spent writing Zarathustra.
He identified Goethe, the great German writer, philosopher and scientist, as the modern human being who had come closest to the ideal of the Superman. And indeed, Goethe -- who will discussed in detail in the chapter on Intuition and Bliss -- is often celebrated as a "complete man." He was a masterful creator, and also an earthy, sensual man who lived life to the fullest. His keen, original, creative mind excelled in a huge variety of areas, not only the writing of poetry, drama and prose, but painting, botany, physics, law and politics as well. A member of German high society, his peers respected him sodeeply that they overlooked his social lapses, such as his passion for his lusty, largely illiterate commoner wife Christiane. Toward the end of his life he displayed an "Olympian detachment" strongly reminiscent of aged gurus in Oriental wisdom traditions -- he was said to have one foot in this world and one foot in the other. Goethe was not a Superman, but he was the next step in the direction of the Superman, well beyond the ordinary human beings of today.
The example of Goethe highlights the main difference between Nietzsche's Superman and the "enlightened men" of Eastern traditions? The Superman is active and creative, rather than passive and contemplative. He may rule men, or may not, depending on his inclination. He embraces intense joys and intense pains, with full knowledge that each contains the other. In short, he does his greatness, rather than just being his greatness. What Nietzsche admired in Goethe was the combination of doing and being. Goethe not only did great things, he was a great man. Very few heros of the Western world have lived up to this standard, which the Superman exemplifies.
Nietzschean philosophy poses a serious challenge to Eastern ideas. Nietzsche understood the full depth of the hierarchy of being, and understood the allure of passive, monk-style enlightenment, but he promoted another, different state of consciousness as being superior. In this case, it seems clear that we are dealing with a different state of consciousness, rather than merely a different state of mind within the same state of consciousness. At risk of sounding ridiculous, let us call Nietzsche's Superman state of consciousness by the name Supermind. Supermind is more closely allied with the state of creative inspiration than with any other ordinary human experience. But, while Sri Aurobindo takes the state of creative inspiration as a step on the path to ultimate, blissful union with one's atman; Nietzsche takes it as a step on the path to something else.
Of course, there are gurus, yogis and Zen masters who claim to be enlightened, but there are no Supermen. In this sense, nirvana in its various forms is concrete, whereas Nietzsche's alternative "ideal" state of consciousness, Supermind, is purely hypothetical. But the concept is extremely interesting nonetheless.
Supermind is deeply reminiscent of Gebser's integral structure of consciousness. Integral consciousness is supposed to include the strengths of the mental structure of consciousness, while still integrating spiritual awareness in a deep and fundamental sense. Integral culture is supposed to incorporate scientific, technological culture with conscious living and spiritual harmony. It is not clear whether this goal makes sense in terms of the spiritual end-states, the "enlightenment" states, of the Eastern wisdom traditions. Nietzsche's work is essential here in that it reminds us of the possibility of wide a spectrum different "enlightened" states of consciousness. If technological culture ever does evolve intosome kind of integral culture, one can expect this integral culture to incorporate new states of elevated consciousness more oriented toward action than the traditional Eastern enlightened states. Nietzshe's theory of the Superman is one person's inspired guess as to what these new states of consciousness will be like. We will return to Supermind in later chapters, when we consider enlightened states of consciousness in more detail.
Nietzsche on Mind
And what is the theory of mind that underlies Nietzsche's challenge to Eastern spiritual traditions? Is it distinct from the theory of mind usually associated with the Perennial Philosophy? Careful attention shows that it is very similar to the Perennial Theory of Mind, but with definite differences. Principally, Nietzsche had an entirely less positive view of consciousness than is typical in wisdom traditions. Rather than viewing consciousness as the agent of change, he saw consciousness as a kind of puppet leader, dancing on the strings of deeper unconscious forces.
As the above quote from his notebooks indicates, Nietzsche saw no fundamental difference between mind and universe. He viewed both the physical world and the psychosocial self as illusory constructions. At bottom, he viewed the mind/universe as a collection of processes or "dynamic quanta" (dharma, in Buddhist terms), acting on each other and modifying each other. The physical world and the psychosocial self are self-supporting systems emerging from this underlying world of flux. "Will to power and morphology" was his formula for the universe. The will to power is the urge of each mental process to act on other mental processes. Morphology is pattern, habit, form, structure. Morphology emerges from the interactions of mental processes. It can also guide the behavior of individual processes, which may be able to recognize processes.
The Indian wisdom traditions rarely give a convincing reason for the existence of illusory reality. Some religions, beginning with Zoroastrianism, posit an evil force which keeps us from seeing true reality, the Kingdom of God. Christianity obviously falls into this lineage. Nietzsche, however, had a different explanation. Illusory reality exists, he said, because of the limitations of human biology, and the dynamics of evolution. Our brains had to evolve efficient representations of the world. Toward that end, they made simplifying assumptions, approximations. They assumed things were equal when in fact things were only similar. Thus arose the whole bevy of psychological assumptions. Objective reality, the psychosocial self (the "little word I" with a big impact), the body as physical rather than mental. Abstract geometric forms such as planes, rectangles, solid objects. Conceptual tools such as sequence and number. Inner abstractions such as emotions, volitions, desires. Moral abstractions such as good, evil, altruism. None of these things are "really there." We sense them to be there because evolution has deemed it efficient for us to sense them to be there. We can't help it. However, we can realize that we are making arbitrary assumptions, induced by evolution. And we can act on this realization by creating as many of our own assumptions as we can, to supplant the ordinary ones. Above all, to Nietzsche, the Superman was one who creates his own values -- not merely in the sense of moral values, but in the sense of criteria for judging and understanding all things. While the rest of us plod along blindly, following our wired-in assumptions, the Superman makes himself aware of the assumptions he is following, and creates his own assumptions.
It was remarkably farsighted of Nietzsche, writing in the previous century, to make such deep and provocative use of modern evolutionary theory. He was the first major philosopher to do so. In this context, however, his use of evolution has a bit of a paradoxical ring to it. What he is explaining is the existence of illusory forms in the universe: the physical world, the psychosocial self, etc. But in order to explain this, he makes appeal to evolution, which is a scientific idea, and thus an offshoot of the physical world. He is explaining the origin of the illusion of objective reality in terms of the illusion of objective reality. What Nietzsche is presenting us with is a kind of circular causation or "dependent origination." The physical world gave rise to evolution, which gave rise to organisms, which gave rise to minds that had to construct the physical world. In other words, Nietzsche says that the dharma of the dharma is no-dharma, but in order to explain this no-dharma dharma, he assumes that the dharma of the dharma is dharma after all.
It is interesting to extract the essential core of Nietzsche's explanation of the existence of illusory phenomena, subtracting out the reference to human evolution. This essential core, I claim, is simply that illusory phenomena are efficient. The objective physical world, the psychosocial self, and so forth, are patterns in the underlying universe of flux. They are regularities, efficient methods for approximately capturing aspects of the universe's structure. They are not really just sheaths clothing ultimate being, as the Vedanta would have it. They do clothe ultimate being, in a sense, but they also emerge from ultimate being in a very natural way. One might say, therefore, that the basic reason for the existence of the lower realms of being, the illusory world, is the urge to extract regularities, to recognize patterns.
But where does this urge to extract regularities come from? One way to explain this is to introduce evolution again, not on the human level, but on the level of dharma. This move is almost implicit in some of Nietzsche's last notebooks, but in the end Nietzsche stopped just short of it. Consider: the dynamic quanta, the dharma that make up the universe, work by manipulating morphology, by grasping the forms in the universe. Out of their inner urge to extend themselves, they recognize structure, pattern, form. These recognized forms are what we, in everyday life, take for the essence of the world. However, the dynamic quanta are continually struggling with each other: at any given moment, some will survive and some will not. This is largely a struggle to cooperate: most of the dynamic quanta are tied up in self-preserving systems with large numbers of other dynamic quanta. But it is a struggle nonetheless, and inthis struggle, an edge goes to those dynamic quanta that have a more efficient representation of the world around them. Thus efficient representations emerge, not because of human evolution, but because of a kind of variation and selection on the level of underlying reality, the level of interpenetrating dharma, the level of anandamaya.
Thus we arrive at another respect in which Nietzschean philosophy challenges Eastern religion. As well as replacing the enlightened man with the more active Superman, Nietzsche gives a very different explanation for the emergence of illusory reality. Instead of gods, unexplained forces or "evil," he invokes efficiency on the level of interpenetrating, subtle forms. The Superman is able to play on this subtle level in a big way, creating his own values and patterns and throwing them into the pool along with all the others. As for the rest of us, we make some small innovations, but for the most part we just follow along, accepting the forms that emerge from the subtle level of their own accord.
Finally, let us turn once again to the topic of consciousness. This is an interesting subject because, at first glance, Nietzsche's view of consciousness appears to be the exact opposite of the spiritual view of consciousness. However, careful consideration reveals that this is not the case -- that the two perspectives, though expressed in very different languages, are in fact quite similar.
Nietzsche was struck, above all, by the coarse-grained nature of the ideas in consciousness. Consciousness, he argued, has a very small capacity, compared to the unconscious mind. The unconscious is far larger and carries out far more subtle processes. Consciousness contains only oversimplified versions of unconscious processes. Consciousness exists to make definite decisions, and to deal with language. But the decisions that it makes are all rigged by the unconscious, which creates the "facts" and "perceptions" on the basis of which consciousness carries out its reasoning. And the linguistic forms that are consciousness's forte' serve primarily to make unconscious thought simpler and stupider.
At the time Nietzsche wrote, the concept of the unconscious had not yet been developed by any major thinker. Consciousness was exalted and equated to reason, language and logic. Nietzsche felt that logical reasoning was grossly overestimated. He saw that humans were nearly always irrational; and that, in fact, our highest creative achievements were always due to totally irrational acts of inspiration, rather than any kind of systematic reasoning process. From this he concluded that consciousness, the seat of rational logic, was far less essential that most people thought. A person's unconscious thoughts, he declared, are individual, unique and subtle. But in order to communicate these thoughts, a person must first pass them through the "filter" of consciousness and language -- a filter which removes most of what is ideosyncratic and beautiful, and replaces it with lowest-common-denominatorism, with hackneyed thought-forms and expressions designed to be easy for others to understand.
At first sight, this is precisely the opposite of the spiritual view of consciousness. In wisdom traditions, consciousness is opposed to karma, to stupid, accumulated habit-patterns. Conscious attention is held up as the only method for attaining freedom of the mind and soul. Whereas in Nietzsche's view, the ideal condition would be to dispense with the stupidifying meddling of consciousness altogether, and just let the far more powerful unconscious do its work.
What we are up against here, however, is the very intricate phenomenology of conscious experience. When one writer talks about consciousness, and then another writer (perhaps from a different age and culture) talks about consciousness, it cannot be glibly assumed that they are talking about the same thing. In this case, we must ask ourselves: How did Nietzsche know the unconscious was so powerful? He must have felt powerful ideas massing up inside him; powerful, fully-formed intuitive ideas emanating from the back of his mind. He must have also felt the difficulty of forcing these fully-formed ideas into the narrow confines of logic and language, of ordinary conscious thought. In fact, from his autobiographical writings, we know that he had these experiences. What he meant by "powerful unconscious ideas" was, I believe: forms emanating from the higher levels of being, from vignanamaya and anandamaya. And what he meant by "consciousness" was, I believe, the ordinary waking state of consciousness. Translating Nietzsche's ideas about consciousness into this language, their truth becomes apparent. Insights obtained from the higher levels of being do not fit very well into ordinary waking consciousness. They are difficult to reason about logically, and difficult to communicate linguistically. Logic and language tend to "dumb them down."
In Supermind, ordinary waking consciousness would not call the shots. Rather, there would be a state of consciousness in which higher unconscious inspirations -- forms passed down from the higher levels of being -- would dominate the flow of consciousness. Conscious thought would still exist, but it would not interrupt and stupidify the flow of intuition. This is basically a restatement of the Buddhist idea that, in the enlightened mind, percepts and volitions are still experienced, but in a way that does not interrupt bhavanga -- smooth, continuous conscious flow.
Thus, on the topic of consciousness, we find that Nietzsche's contradiction with the Perennial Philosohy is only apparent. Nietzsche focuses on inner control rather than consciousness as a method for advancement, but in this he is not so far off from Yogic philosophy -- just a little further along the spectrum toward control and away from attention. He understands the anemic and stultifying aspects of ordinary waking consciousness, and promotes states of consciousness which are more amenable to higher intuitions.